Thoughts About "Chain" Restaurants

While heading home with my family after having dinner at Bahama Breeze, my Mom lamented about the "lack" of restaurants in Midtown. Given the number of establishments within Overton Square alone, it was an unusual assertion from her. When I mentioned restaurants such as The Cupboard, Side Street Grill and Fresh Slices Sidewalk Cafe & Deli (a black-owned business), my Mom was weary of those places. To her, those locally-owned establishments have no credibility because she has never heard of them. In my Mom's worldview, only "legitimate" brands like Applebee's, Outback Steakhouse and IHOP are the only ones that matter in the restaurant business (along with her favorite local take-out places like Adline's). If that's the case, I strongly disagree.
In fact, my best experiences have come from so-called "mom-and-pop" restaurants where the owner(s) have a personal stake in all facets of the business. Just like I said in my review of Los Pilares, "chain" restaurants are more "corporate," run by managers more concerned about the "bottom line" than lending the personal touch that makes a restaurant unique. That extends to everything including the food, drinks, service and overall decor and atmosphere. Also, that includes getting to know the customers, especially the "regulars" who consistently bring in revenue. Knowing the intricacies of them such as favorite drinks, preferences for cooking an entrée and even a customer's temperament can make a difference in customer loyalty. With regards to the last point, I've personally found (or rather put) myself in situations where I wasn't the most, shall I say, "friendly" in some of my favorite bars like Max's, Bardog and others. In a "corporate" setting, I'm sure that I would've been given the boot and banned from returning. However, local restaurants and bars where the owners and workers know their "regulars" can sense when one of them is having a bad night and will likely cut him/her some slack. As long as the person isn't damaging anything or harassing other customers, they know that everything will work out in the end. To put it in another way, local restaurants care more about their customers than "chains" who only see things from a numbers perspective. I don't have anything against "chain" restaurants, it's just that I'll never be a fan of them.
The one exception to the "chain" rule is The Flying Saucer Draught Emporium that's based in Fort Worth, Texas. Despite the number of "Flying Saucers" throughout the South and Midwest, each one is uniquely tailored for its community. For example, the Flying Saucer in Memphis' Cordova neighborhood is more of a restaurant that caters both to families and beer connoisseurs who are simply trying to unwind after a long day of work. Having been there a few times, I definitely felt like I was in "Cordova" as opposed to festive Downtown Memphis. The layout of the place doesn't include things like a stage for music acts and a pool table, items featured in its Downtown location. Even the menu is slightly different, for "Cordova" serves burgers and seafood "baskets" that has more appeal to kids than its Peaboby Place counterpart. Personally, the biggest difference between Memphis's two Flying Saucers is the personnel. To me, the staff at the Cordova is a little more "reserved" than its sister restaurant/bar. Unlike the Downtown location were the bartenders and waitstaff are very engaging with customers, the personnel at the Cordova location are more laid-back and focused on service. Quite often at the Downtown Saucer, I'm welcomed by people who briefly chat with me before getting me a beer (usually the daily "Fire Sale"). I also like that the bartenders and servers seem to have more fun at work, to the bemusement of patrons like myself (this is probably the reason why I spend so much time there). Before I go on, I'm not implying that the waitstaff at either Flying Saucer is more or less professional than the other, but rather that the two places cater to its unique clientele. As it relates to the Downtown Saucer, it has to have personnel with experience of dealing with adults who are more focused on drinking and the consequences involved with that. That includes those who occasionally visit Downtown from the suburbs and "regulars" who love drinking lots of beer (especially when served by ladies in short skirts). So, while Memphis' two Flying Saucers share the same name, they are two different places with regards to atmosphere and character. Unlike a similar "chain" like Hooters, there's a lot of variety among the "links" of the Flying Saucer. If more "chains" allowed its management the autonomy and flexibility to create the perfect environment for its customers, people like myself might be more willing to embrace it as part of the community. Hopefully, restaurant chains like the Flying Saucer will set the example for others to follow.
Getting back to what my Mom said, I hope someday that she will see the light about locally-owned restaurants. I believe that she is depriving herself by ignoring places that would appreciate her business. I will do my part to change her opinion by treating her to places that I think she will like. For example, instead of going to Bahama Breeze, maybe dinner at Evelyn & Olive will satisfy her Caribbean craving with a little local hospitality. As for her love of Houston's, hopefully a trip to Restaurant Iris will convince her that Memphis-based restaurants are very competitive with regards to quality. If my efforts can sway her, I'm confident that she'll become a local "regular" of a restaurant who will truly appreciate her. In doing so, she will break the "chains!"

SIDE NOTE: I would be remiss if I didn't mention a blog devoted to supporting local restaurants. Eat Local Memphis reviews local restaurants, announces culinary events happening in the area and talks about other issues related to Memphis cuisine.

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