Chain Restaurants and the Snobbery Surrounding Them

News recently broke of Applebee’s parent company deciding to close 160 Applebee’s and IHOPs. The decision is due to declining sales, largely the results of millennials, who seem to be killing everything. DineEquity has decided to take Applebee’s back to how it was — all you can eat deals and the 2 for $20 menu–and stop trying to have menu items to appeal to Millennials.

I am a millennial and I haven’t been to an Applebee’s in four years, which makes me part of the problem. I have, in the past year, been to IHOP, Red Lobster, Cheddar’s, and the greatest of all chains, Village Inn. I also made it to a TGI Friday’s and a Chili’s (too) in the time since I’ve made it to an Applebee’s. I live in the largest city in Wisconsin and am the type of cool, hip millennial — I compost and there’s currently an IPA from a Wisconsin brewery in my fridge —  they are trying to appeal to, but is inevitably killing the restaurant.

I have an odd fondness for casual dining chains.

As I enjoy bringing up, I grew up in Iowa. Many of the chains mentioned were in the area I grew up in and I have many memories tied to going to those restaurants. Breakfast on the weekends with my family at IHOP, going to Applebee’s and Olive Garden for a nice dinner, eating at Chili’s with my mom the evening before we visited Rockford College, eating Village Inn whenever we damn well felt like it because pie is good, blasting Billy Joel from my mom’s car in the parking lot of the Cedar Falls parking lot while dancing with a friend at 11 p.m..

Red Lobster is more emotionally tied to a good memory as it was often the choice of food when my dad was in town after my parents divorced. The Red Lobster in Waterloo with its muted blue color scheme and coastal decor comes to mind when I sit down at one of the gussied up restaurants in the chain in the Milwaukee area. As I sink my teeth into one of the Cheddar Bay Biscuits, memories of me, my sister, and our father seated in a booth, making “Blazing Saddles” references and talking about school come to me.

Cheddar’s, a chain I learned about while attending Michigan State University, provided me some comfort while traveling through Iowa in November. While the mistake was made of playing Michelle Branch’s “Breathe,” I found I enjoyed my food and it did exactly what I needed it to do, which was provide me with a filling, tasty meal in a comfortable setting that also helped stave off my migraine.

When I eat out, I don’t frequent larger chains.

This largely comes from most of the chains having restaurants in the suburbs, while I live in the city (Applebee’s has a location in Milwaukee near where I worked a couple of years ago, but I always forgot about Applebee’s when I got lunch and instead went to Rocky Rococo or a Jewish deli with a location in the Grand Avenue food court). There are several wonderful locally-owned restaurants in the Milwaukee with delicious food. Two of my favorite Milwaukee restaurants are in walking distance of my apartment, which is convenient as I hate driving. I am also a granola-munching, Birkenstock-wearing, composting Millennial, so I am immediately inclined to support local businesses. The bigger issue for me is I actively enjoy cooking and use it as a stress reliever, which is the main reason I don’t go out eating as much as some people.

This would be different if I lived in lots of parts of Iowa. While I can get delicious baked goods at Comet Cafe or Honeypie, my best option in Iowa would likely be the Holy Righteous Village Inn. There are plenty of great locally-owned restaurants in Iowa–Montage in Cedar Falls, Bar La Tosca in Ames, The Brown Bottle in Waterloo, which I admittedly like for its atmosphere–but there’s not nearly the abundance you find in areas like Chicago or Milwaukee. Even in East Lansing, I found myself usually going to chain restaurants when I ate out with my father.

There is a problem with me admitting that I would likely go to chain restaurants more often if I lived in Iowa, which is that it plays into the snobbishness found in urban areas towards chain restaurants. Most people in urban areas think chain restaurants are for the “thems” in Middle America, the type the media keeps claiming Hollywood and liberals don’t know anything about. They automatically assume all chain restaurants are bland, tacky restaurants with a lot of cheesy shit on the walls and the only people who eat there are conservatives.

This was even brought to me by someone who was from Huntington Beach. As he sneered about how people in Iowa are probably depressed and think gourmet food is Olive Garden, I fired back and bought up how a lot of good memories that are tied to those restaurants. I also pointed out he’s from Huntington Beach, which sounds like a SimCity scenario waiting to happen and doesn’t even get an authentic Don the Beachcomber.

And I’m incredibly liberal and happen to love cheesy shit on the walls, especially if it fits the theme of the restaurant (I love tiki bars for this very reason). When I went to Village Inn, I actually enjoyed the cutsey orange signs plastered on the walls while I ate breakfast for lunch, listening to the familiar elevator music. I will be the first to admit there are very bland chain restaurants–I know I’ve been to Ruby Tuesday, but I cannot tell you anything about the food or atmosphere–and some that seem to have bad business models. But some of the restaurants have food I genuinely enjoy. Besides, where else am I going to be able to get a breakfast platter at 10 p.m. and a slice of pie?

What people need to admit is there can be bland food at locally-owned restaurants. Small towns might have greasy spoons straight out of a movie, but the food might not be very good. Even popular, locally-owned businesses can fail to deliver with good food, even though people will continue to throw accolades their way because they perceive a locally-owned restaurant as being innovative. Red Light Ramen has overpriced, bland food with putrid smelling and repugnant tasting drinks, but people will continue to go there because it’s something different and popular from an acclaimed local chef.

Allow people to enjoy the restaurants they like. If you enjoy a national chain, there’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t mean you have to stop voting Democrat or you have no interest in food. If you only eat at locally-owned restaurants, that’s also okay. If you think Red Light Ramen is great, I might lose some respect for your food choices, but you can keep enjoying $13 ramen and alcoholic beverages that assault your tastebuds. There’s no reason to look down at people for eating at different restaurants and maybe chains like Applebee’s will stop trying to reinvent themselves. Maybe we just want what we liked in the first place. Then, maybe the younger generations will come back.

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