I just listened to last weeks podcast where the guys talked about how Chili's, TGIF & Ruby Tuesdays sell all the same food, and I just thought I would answer why this is the case. It's pretty simple, they all use the same wholesalers, it's basically the all mechanical watches are made in Switzerland dilemma but applied to casual dinning.
As for what Will complained about how "at least Denny's has to cook their own food, and it's not all prepackaged." As someone who worked as a cook for a while in a nice local yacht club that was not corporate & not a casual dinning corporate dining experience like a Chili's, I was always jealous of the guys working at the corporate restaurants. I made more money than they did, but their jobs are orders of magnitude easier than mine because everything is prepackaged. From the time I worked as a cook, I'll say that in this order this is what you worry about with the food.
I know this may seem counter intuitive, but consistency is the hardest and most important thing I found to make people happy. People are less worried with the quality of how there food is cooked than they are the assurance that it tastes as they expected it to. It's the same reason why some people vomit if they drink water out of a milk carton, if the food doesn't match their expectation, it upsets them.
What these corporate casual dining experiences have created which is incredible to me as a cook, is a clear consistency that is nation wide. You go into have a ribeye at any of these places and it will be as you expect it. Not only that but because it's pre-prepared the turnover is shorter as well. Out of those three rules that I noticed naturally came about from my cooking experience, those restaurants have been able to achieve and even though the food may not excite your taste buds, as a cook I'm jealous of their process.
You will notice, at least I have, that Denny's takes a long time to get you your food. Usually because they are underpaying for underexperienced cooks but also because they have to as Will stated prepare their food. Also word of advice when flipping eggs, never move your elbows, it's all in the wrists, you'll save many eggs this way I assure you.
I was only going to write a paragraph about this but I could go on really, that discussion really got me thinking about my experience with cooking & so did the recent modernist cuisine activity on the site. Also weird fact, people from different regions of the country have widely varying opinions on what constitutes a rare, and because our club would have large groups come in all from the same state I would have to do research on that before cooking for them to make them happy. Usually the more rural the area(Alabama or Midwest), the more cooked they liked their steak, and the more urbanized the region(North East for example) the rarer they liked their state. It was so varying to one point that a medium-rare to some folks in Alabama constituted a medium to someone from North East. Always thought that was odd.
@thabigred: This is a great post. Thanks.
As a dude who likes to experience different food, the homogenization that the big chains represent is really worrisome to me. I know I'm probably an edge case, but this is why I don't support Chili's, Fridays, Applebees, etc with my money.
The point about rare meat is something that really surprised me when I moved to CA. What they call medium rare in many restaurants here would be considered rare in TN, where I grew up. My experience follows yours. I usually order rare in the South and Midwest, and medium rare in California and the west coast. At high-end steakhouses, especially ones that I'm not familiar with, I've started just giving the temperature I like (120F), to avoid confusion. At first I thought it was weird, but no one has complained so far.
@will: You are an edge case, but I agree with you in terms of eating out. The only corporate casual dining experience I frequent is Outback and they're the one case of a corporate restaurant that goes above the call of duty. If you want sushi, and ask for it they are obligated to go to the store and make you sushi. I've never been enough of an ass to actually order off the menu like that but the option is there.
That said, I'm sure giving an exact temperature at a nice steakhouse is preferable both for the cook and yourself. It allows him to set his internal cooking clock that much more precisely which only makes his/her life easier, which usually means you get better food :) .
I agree, I like supporting local restaurants or even smaller chains that supply better food, better experience at the same price.
I'm down with this but honestly if you don't live in a big city it's pretty hard.
Like when I lived in Korea it was super easy to try a million different restaurants, chains and not. But I mean there are some independent restaurants near me but not very many.
Add to that some of my family and friends are picky eaters, it's pretty hard to go about finding new stuff.
I like the adventure of trying new places for food, sometimes the best places is some whole in the wall joint. I think it's more disturbing when you see people travel far away for a vacation and waste their time in a McDonald's when a great local restaurant is across the street.
@thabigred I agree the corporate shops menus are designed to reflect consistency of the brand. I did notice they carefully craft the process to also address keeping wages low and handle high turnover while requiring little to no training; ultimately to remain profitable. Once I did work for place that was contracted to print and bind a large order of the recipe cookbooks for a big chain. Long story short I was disappointed to read the instructions was nothing more then match and heat a can of company secret sauce with menu item, as it was canned and bottled at its whole sale location.
Anyways from personal observation and experience, I came to a conclusion how it got this way.
In reflection something I have slowly come to learn is that the corporate franchises structure is a reflection of the suburbia culture that has grown in North America. If a person is living in a well established heavy populated area such as New York or San Francisco the chance of exposure to a quality private restaurant is much higher with maybe fine dining, a bakery or just some street food cart. IMHO a private business cannot afford taking the risk and will try to locate them self in an area that will most likely succeed. The reality is a large part of our population live in HOA cookie cutter home community for various reasons. Before that community was built by a corporate housing developer, the area resembled nothing more then farmland.
Now we face the chicken or the egg scenario, people vs. business in a new community. The franchises are going to be first on location with XYZ chain in new mega strip mall and only after long term settlement do we really see smaller private business take a chance. It's during this period you have a generation of our society is trained to only eat with limited exposure to restaurants and food while being left to debate which franchise offers the best value. Can't blame us it is the culture we are marketed and socially taught.
Ultimately exposure and social education and sharing these experiences with friends and family will be the answer for helping people try new things.
I apologies for the wall of text, but this was a good topic that has been on my mind for years.