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The Buzz

A Beerfly's view. If you see anything here that seems crazy, click here.

Fresh Buzz

Vintage Buzz

2006 Buzz

June '06: Viva El Hefe!

May '06: Just Like Wine

Apr. '06: Mixed Messages

Mar. '06: We Print the Truth

Feb. '06: The Fairer Sex

Jan. '06: Best of 2005

2005 Buzz

Dec. '05: Look at Me Drink!

Nov. '05: Malt Monsters

Oct. '05: Sweetness

Sep. '05: When to Fold

Aug. '05: Little Nightmares

July '05: American Spirit

June '05: Miller Time 

May. '05: Breathing Beer 

April '05: Now It's Personal

Mar. '05: 7% Ain't Enough

Feb. '05: Down to 18 

Jan. '05: Best of 2004 

2004 Buzz

Dec. '04: Joys of the Dark 

Nov. '04: The Next Store 

Oct. '04: Beer's Image 

Sept. '04: Clearly Insane 

August '04: Love of Lager

July '04: Speak Up!

June '04: Get Drafted

May '04: Shedding Tiers

April '04: Keg Party

March '04: Ultra Madness

February '04: Case Law

January '04: Best of 2003

2003 Buzz

Dec. '03: Wine good!

Nov. '03: Say Anything

Oct. '03: Shots at Saveur

Sept. '03: Pay For It!

August '03: Subtlety

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

June '03: Screw 'Em!

May '03: Extreme Beer?

April '03: Liquor Taxes

March '03: St. Patrick's

February '03: Coffee

January '03: Taxes


July, 2006 

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.

But 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. 

Why? 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."

Here's 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?"

"No," Citrin 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 things."

"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? 

Not 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 risk. 

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.

What 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 asks. 

"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 addition on. 

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.

Feh. Chains 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 at Blue 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. 

And 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. 

Take the time to eat somewhere else this month, and find your best locals.

When you do, buy gift certificates for presents for your friends.

And break the chains. Declare your independence.

Copyright 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: November 01, 2006