Saturday, February 2, 2013

What wrong with chains?

I was walking with friends down Barracks Row, a retail district located on 8th St SE near Eastern Market Metro station. One said that he wished there was more than just restaurants on Barracks Row. Another agreed and said that the area had become "formulaic." There has been a good deal of discussion of these new restaurants and bars, which, in some bizarre way, look all the same. For example, see the Washington City Paper article on the new Hawk and Dove. In a previous post, I argued that the old Hawk and Dove was a cross-class institution. Such cross-class institutions are difficult to create because they must be affordable and open/comfortable to a broad range of people. What is lost when such cross-class and lower-revenue businesses close? How might we try to avoid commercial gentrification, which displaces lower-revenue businesses catering to a wide-range of income levels with higher-revenue businesses that have this surprising standardization?

As I discussed in my "Washington DC as Global City" post, places like Barracks Row seek to draw the "creative classes," who demand "unique," "authentic," "local" experiences. So, they would not desire a dinner at a McDonalds, Chili's, or other national-chain restaurants. On Barracks Row, there is a ban on new fast food restaurants, though national-chain fast-food restaurants have a customer base there, since local chains and local owners are not providing affordable food like Popeye's $3.49 chicken sandwich or Boli's $5 jumbo slice/drink. Contrast this with, for example, Matchbox's $12 chicken sandwich or Ted's Bulletin's $10.29 hamburger. The ban on new fast food restaurants on Barracks Row allows businesses to create a space oriented towards the higher-income creative class, which translates into higher rents, higher prices, and, for the city, more tax revenue. However, this does not mean that chains are gone. We shouldn't divide the world into either 1) national chains or 2) local, unique restaurants because the restaurant industry has figured out how to combine both of these, as we can see on and around Baracks Row:
  • National and international chains, such as nearby Le Pain Quotidian, cater not to the customer base of Popeye's but to the higher-income creative classes. The stores are very attractive and are chains.
  • Local chains on Barracks Row, like Matchbox pizza (with locations in Barracks Row, Chinatown, 14th Street, Rockville, Palm Springs, and soon Merrifield, VA), are growing into national chains. In line with the desires of the creative class, developers have had to create a new kind of shopping mall with unique stores, which have a proven track record. Early on, Bethesda Row brought in DC restaurants like Jaleo. In Merrifield, Matchbox is now joining other retailers we see in Ward 6 -- Cava, Dawn Price Baby, Le Pain Quotidian, Matchbox, Taylor Gourmet, and sweetgreen -- in the Mosaic District, which brands itself as "A curated mix of unique retail, restaurant and entertainment experiences" (upscale mall). Will the branch restaurants have to standardize to create the same experience as that in Ward 6? 
  • New kinds of chains have appeared on Barracks Row. Around the world, a new business strategy is to create a restaurant group with some centralization (maybe centralized accounting, management, sourcing of supplies, training of staff, etc.) and major investors (maybe private equity, hedge funds, other forms of venture capital) organized around either a chef-owner or several chefs with some ownership stake. On Barracks Row, Ambar is part of Chef Richard Sandoval Restaurants with Masa 14 and other restaurants around the world, which also designs meals for American Airlines flights. Xavier Cervera has has considered selling his many DC restaurants, including Senart's and Cheasapeake Room on Barracks Row, to a Boston private equity firm. Does this lead to a certain amount of standardization?
My point here is not to criticize chains and label everything a chain. These restaurant groups can be very good for employees because chefs, waiters, and other staff can get training, move between restaurants and improve their work situations, and use these experiences for later career mobility. In addition, the corporate turn toward unique restaurants reflects a recognition that people have criticized overt commercialism and do not want to live amongst huge billboards and Golden Arches in their neighborhood.

We thus have a new commercialism that fuses chains, corporations, and a certain narrow interpretation of "authenticity." In the desire to compete globally and draw in the creative classes, does the city paradoxically create a new kind of homogeneous landscape? Are these landscapes of boutiques created because they are all catering to the same customers -- the creative classes -- and not to the broader population? The perception of restaurants as either national chains or local, unique restaurants also obscures the fact that the only affordable restaurants in many places are national fast-food chains. Can we have locally-owned affordable restaurants? Or will both national chains and upscale "chains" be the only businesses that can afford the constantly increasing rents?

P.S. See my next post "What wrong with chains? (II)"

1 comment:

  1. Most national chains are franchises. They have local owners in addition to their local employees.

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