Break the Chains
A liquor license in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, just went
for $1.5 million.
That astonishes and disgusts me in a number of ways.
The idea of paying $1.5 million for a piece of paper, with
no property involved, just boggles the mind. The state, in the midst of
a budget crisis, will see very little of that money, even though they
are the granters and regulators of the piece of paper (thanks to their
appropriation of the powers of controlling the sales of booze), and that
boggles the mind. I could go on and on about that, or about how
transferable limited-issue liquor licenses directly drives irresponsible
bar practices, or how prices like that pretty much insure that the deeply
damaged liquor license system will never be fixed.
I'd rather remind you that costs like that favor national chain
restaurants and clubs. You know I'm down
on big chains: I avoid them whenever possible.
How's this for starters: chains kill local businesses. They kill
variety, they kill innovation, they kill independence. I'm not
just talking about financial independence, either. They're out to kill your
independence: they want you to crave what they're giving you, so
that going to eat somewhere else takes a real effort. "What?
Find a new place? Aw, why don't we just go to Chili's/Applebee's/TGI
Friday's, you know you like it."
a little back-and-forth from a great article on this by Dave
Gardetta that originally ran in Los Angeles magazine and wound up
in Best Food Writing 2003. It's a conversation between a
Chili's waitress and chef Josiah Citrin (who the article is actually
about), about the "Chili's taste."
Citrin popped a piece of
Awesome Blossom (Chili's signature sectioned deep-fried onion) in
his mouth, then rolled it around on his tongue. "Everything has the
same flavor here," he said, trying to flag the waitress. "It's
like the candy version of food, like Jolly Ranchers."
"How are you guys
doing?" our waitress asked. "Hey, you guys aren't from the
food police, are you?"
smiled. "I want to ask you something. What is the Chili's taste?"
"The chili? It
comes already mixed in a bag, but it goes on the Awesome Blossom,
the mashed potatoes, french fries, a lot of the burgers, and some other
"Everything has the same flavor here." Just
think about that. Why would you want to eat food that all has the
same flavor? That's kind of the reductio ad absurdum of the
great defense of the chains: "No matter where I am, when I
go to a Chili's, I know what it going to be like; it's safe." And
that's a good thing? Golly, won't it be even gooder to
know that no matter what you order at Chili's, you'll know what
it's going to taste like? Lemmings. Might as well sit at home
eating cans of creamed corn, and when Chili's starts selling
their 'taste,' already mixed in a bag, you can take it home and put
it all over your creamed corn. Nummy.
And while you're sitting there in
your corn frenzy, chains are taking over, with the unwitting help of
micro-managing, nanny-state government. This stupid
state law is a good example of what I mean. It isn't peculiar to New
Jersey, it's actually a pretty common method of limiting the number of
booze outlets. You have to limit the number of booze outlets, of course,
because when there are more bars, people drink more, everyone knows that
(or maybe it's that when you have more people that drink, they can
support more bars...but don't confuse me with facts). You get so many liquor licenses per unit of
population -- county -- township -- your-choice-of-limiting-factor-here, and the state
sells 'em like they sell airwave bandwidth: because they passed a law
that says they own it.
But when the
business is sold, the new owner has to buy the license, and because
there are a limited number, the price goes by the market. As population
increases, hot areas have fewer liquor outlets per unit of
population/drinkers, and the price shoots way up. The chains come
along and want to put up a new store (according to Gardetta's article,
Chili's opens a new restaurant about once a week), and their formula
says "MUST HAVE LIQUOR LICENSE TO MAKE MONEY." So they crank
those numbers in and out pops a proposal to the bank for a mortgage.
They have to have the license, so they pay whatever they have to,
which drives the price up even more.
I hope I
don't have to explain that those price increases work to the chains'
advantage. They have effectively limitless resources, while an
independent restaurateur is often stretched just to get open. Why
do you think BYOBs are such a hot item lately?
to mention, if a bank loan officer is presented with two loan
requests and the one is a local guy with experience as a chef or
manager who wants to open his own place, and the other is a couple
local building contractors who bought a franchise for a Hooters,
unless she's a rare cat who really cares for and understands her
local community deeply, she's going to green-light the wing joint over
the one-shot 19 times out of 20. (No, I don't actually have the
numbers, I just talked to some loan officers. Okay, one. I'm working on
it.) The chain is almost a sure thing for the bank, the one-shot's a
My son's class trip to New York
City involved lunch at the ESPN Zone and dinner at Bubba Gump's. I
was utterly baffled why they'd want to go two hours from home to
get an experience they could get anywhere. "I'd just like you guys
to think about this for a moment," I told my son's friends.
"You're in a city that is famous for having over 3,000
restaurants, and I'm looking out the window at two good ones right
now (Virgil's Barbecue and St. Andrew's)...and yet we're sitting in
a place that is replicated in twenty other cities. You get that,
right?" Nods all around, "You bet, Mr. Bryson!" And they
kept eating totally non-descript food, and I cried in my root beer.
is that kind of thinking buying us? Back to
Gardetta's article, where the waitress is telling Citrin that his new
restaurant is going to have a tough time in her town. Why is that, he
"Well, everyone wants
everything quick, a lot of it, and at a cheap price." I
read that, and what popped right into my mind was a line from the Indigo
Girls' "Prince of Darkness:" No
one can convince me we aren't gluttons for our doom. The
periphery of every city teems with chain restaurants and big-box
stores. Interstate exits sprout them like fungus. Applebee's came to
my town and did so damned well that in a year they had to put an
Please. Don't tell me that
proves how good they are. That proves they are a good business
model. But food quality? These are the same customers who buy the
30-pack boxes of frozen burritos. We want it quick, we want it the same,
we want it cheap, and a coupon in the paper would be nice.
are ugly. Chains are boring. Chains are everywhere. Fight it. In the
past month we went to three new restaurants, and two of them were
marvelous. You know how long it took me to find them, me and Google?
About twenty minutes total. But we got delicious Eastern European foods
Danube in Trenton, New Jersey, stuff you'll never find in a
chain, and we got fresh water buffalo mozzarella and a house-baked
Napoleon at Il
Melograno in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
the booze is usually better, too. The bar selection doesn't come
down from on high from someone who's getting branded leather jackets and
fruit baskets from their liquor wholesaler. Il Melograno, for instance,
had the Beam Small Batch collection of bourbons, but they also had Rock
Hill Farms, which shocked me. Blue Danube had a wild array of weird
brandies and schnapps and such; I could taste for a month there.
the time to eat somewhere else this month, and find your
When you do, buy gift certificates
for presents for your friends.
And break the
chains. Declare your independence.