What goes through your mind when you hear the immortal words of, “Let’s go to the Olive Garden because Aunt Betty likes it,” or “I’ve got a voucher for Pizza Express,” honestly? While some of us may grimace at the mention of a chain restaurant, for some it offers a sense of comfort. Do you turn your nose up at the mention of a chain, or do you secretly love to go when it’s suggested but don’t let on? Dining out shouldn’t be about name dropping where you went, but about having a great time with good company and of course delicious food and friendly service. However, people like to brag about going to exclusive hard to book restaurants, but not so much when they’ve been to a chain restaurant even if it was good, and it’s simply down to plain snobbery.
I’ve had some excellent meals and service in chains (and some bad ones), but I’ve also dined in exclusive restaurants and left still a little hungry, with a bill in triple figures, and was often guilt tripped into tipping for mediocre service. You see, there is never a guarantee of getting a good meal or service wherever you go these days no matter how much you pay. Like them or loathe them, chain restaurants exist and thrive, and can actually make or break a struggling town. This is because people like familiarity in what type of food they like (buffet, pizza, tacos, Italian, or burgers) and are safe in the knowledge that they can afford it. Knowing that you can have the soup and salad bar at the Olive Garden, or if you’re a bit strapped for cash you can have a margherita pizza at Pizza Express can make people feel at ease, because some folks genuinely get nervous and worry about whether they will find anything they like to eat at a restaurant, and that’s why people stick to their favorite dishes. Contrary to belief, not everyone is adventurous when they dine out, and with people wary of allergies, many prefer to stick to what they know rather than take risks. I’ve also met people who will only go to restaurants if they serve their favorite dish and won’t try anything else such as my friend’s son who will always order spaghetti bolognese.
Hence having for example a nearby Pizza Express (UK) or Olive Garden (USA) in can actually generate business and bring in much needed footfall in what are now fading town centers, where the major stores have headed to malls or retail parks instead to save on rent and security costs. I once found myself in Fall River, Massachusetts to discover all they had was a Dunkin Donuts and a Subway in the main district. I then understood why on a Saturday afternoon no one was in town, and why the area had quickly become rundown. If no other chains (even McDonalds) would invest in the area, then who will visit?
In the UK I recently visited my parents to find the only chains in their local town were Pizza Hut and McDonalds, and it becomes a virtual a ghost town after 5 p.m. as there is nowhere for people to eat or meet except for a few pubs. You can see why having some chain restaurants can actually save a dying town center. Meanwhile, a nearby new retail park was supposed to have a Bella Italia but they pulled out just before it opened, and the unit has been empty for over a year. Chains will only invest with the right demographic, because it’s about profit at the end of the day.
Eating out is no longer only for celebrations or a treat; since Groupon existed, and apps with discount codes, there’s always a deal to be had if not there’s an early bird or lunch special. There are some folks who are a little snobby and turn their nose up at eating in a chain restaurant, but food is food, and while ambience can vary from place to place, it’s about who you are with that matters. Once upon a time you were deemed cheap if you had a voucher, but now most servers ask if you have a voucher, and the last place I was in told me if I downloaded the app I could get 50% off food as soon as we sat down. These days there is no shame in using a voucher, and most chains don’t mind because they can use the information generated from the app or email used to keep you on their mailing list, and send you offers to encourage you to return more frequently.
Generic menu ~ You can view the menus online and they’re standard so you know what you are getting, so no specials of the day. This is handy for people with dietary requirements such as vegans, or those with allergies. Going to a restaurant that has a daily menu can be risky, as you may arrive only to find out they have run out of the only dish you can have. As a vegetarian with a lactose intolerance this has often happened to me, and it’s annoying. Chefs tend to only include one vegetarian dish a day, and if they run out they don’t have any back up dishes, which means I always double check what they have before I even sit down.
Pricing ~ This is useful for those on a budget. In particular this is useful for eating out in groups where some people can be put off if a restaurant is pricey.
Head office ~ All chains have a head office, which means that if there are complaints you have somewhere to complain.
Promotions ~ Most chains use social media to promote deals and offers and you can get discounts or free drinks or meals with loyalty schemes. Many will send a birthday voucher and offer drinks as a gift when you dine, or in some cases a free meal. Brewers Fayre offer a free birthday meal to all loyalty cardholders (free to join), and many offer free meals for Mother’s Day to encourage bookings.
Feedback ~ These days chains gather feedback and take it seriously, so check the receipt for a code to enter online, and many will offer an incentive. McDonalds offer a meal deal for £1.99 with a receipt, Pizza Express send you a voucher for free dough balls (no purchase required), and Toby Carvery send you a voucher for a free taster or dessert.
Family friendly ~ This appeals to all ages mainly because there are high chairs available and so will encourage families to dine out.
Frozen food ~ Most of the food will come frozen or already prepared and the staff reheat it. This means if you don’t want peppers for example in a dish they can’t omit them as they are already made with them in.
Lack of variety ~ Chefs can’t make up a meal to cater for a specific requirement.
Service ~ Often the service can be poor in chains as staff don’t stay long and many are on zero hour contracts. Many also seem to have cut back on staffing numbers meaning you have to wait longer to be served, and some people opt to walk away. This is something chains need to address.
Quality of food ~ The quality of food in some chains is very good and others not so good, and it can vary from branch to branch even though it shouldn’t be as some overcook the food.
Atmosphere ~ Sometimes you can’t choose the kind of diners you will be near and have to take whatever table you can get, whether it’s a noisy drunk party, or next to a table of screaming children.
Seating ~ Tables tend to be cramped with uncomfortable chairs depending on the chain. One of my pet peeves is tables that are too close together and when the backs of the chairs are literally hitting each other when someone moves. Chains don’t give you much space as it’s about numbers and how many covers they can fit in.
Chains have allowed the masses to dine out more frequently, but have also given rise to zero hour contracts, and also servers who only earn tips. The exploitation of staff in chains is rife, but customers are not to blame, and nor should they be over tipping to compensate for their lack of wages. Tips are supposed to be additional to a servers wage and not instead of. Besides third party marketing sites such as Living Social and Groupon, social media has enabled chains to reach customers directly, and promote discounts and advertise promotions such as Christmas menus and offer the ability to book tables online. In fact dining in some chains can be cheaper than cooking at home, especially with 50% off vouchers or with an unlimited buffet.
Don’t knock chain restaurants, because they can offer value, and for those who like to know what they are going to get it allows them to be able to join in what is a traditional and social occasion of sharing a meal, after all it’s not where you eat that matters but with whom you are sharing the experience with. That’s what memories are made of aren’t they? If you do use a discount voucher, don’t forget to give an extra tip to the server as long as the service was good and friendly of course!