STOP THE CHAINS Joanna Blythman’s had enough of chain restau­rants throt­tling the high-street

Brash chains are driv­ing in­de­pen­dents from our high streets

BBC Good Food - - Inside Goodfood - @joannablyth­man Joanna Blythman

I’ve be­gun a per­sonal boy­cott of chain restau­rants. I’m so dis­mayed to see how they’re tak­ing over our ur­ban cen­tres, killing off any sense of place, any feel­ing of unique­ness. It’s be­com­ing a big prob­lem in the UK. High streets in­creas­ingly look cloned, with the same brands pop­ping up ev­ery­where. Chains with 40, 50, 60, or more branches are not un­usual. Yet they offer noth­ing lo­cal or dif­fer­ent, just a na­tion­wide, fre­quently global offer cooked up by hedge fund man­agers in dis­tant board­rooms. Worse still, they drive out in­de­pen­dents by push­ing up rents to un­af­ford­able lev­els. Cash-strapped coun­cils, think­ing short-term, em­brace th­ese chains. They even brag about at­tract­ing them to their cities, in­ter­pret­ing their ar­rival as a sign of gas­tro­nomic progress and buoy­ant food cul­ture. But they couldn’t be more wrong. For starters, and I say this as a reg­u­lar restaurant critic, chain restaurant food is av­er­age at best, but more of­ten than not, in­dif­fer­ent or poor. Ei­ther their for­mula is a cut-and-paste fu­sion of other dated chain con­cepts – burg­ers, panasian, Tex-mex, steaks – or they’re a na­tional ‘roll out’ based on one orig­i­nal, au­then­tic restaurant. But cel­e­brated es­tab­lish­ments are one-offs. Try to stamp them out with a cookie cut­ter and all you get is a fee­ble im­i­ta­tion. And there are mul­ti­ple rea­sons why chains never match the food heights of the best lo­cal and in­de­pen­dent restau­rants. Lo­cal sup­pli­ers – the very peo­ple who could fur­nish in­gre­di­ents that re­flect lo­cal sea­sons – don’t get a look-in with chains that buy cen­trally from large com­pa­nies. The busi­ness model of most restaurant chains is such that many com­po­nents are pre-pre­pared in one cen­tral fac­tory kitchen, then shipped out frozen or chilled. The other day while re­view­ing a chain restaurant, I was served khaki green sludge as ‘co­rian­der salsa’. It could have been boil-in-the-bag for all the punchy flavour of fresh co­rian­der it had.

I think many of th­ese chains are ef­fec­tively be­witch­ing us, to the ex­tent that we don’t ac­tu­ally sub­mit what’s on our plates to crit­i­cal scru­tiny. Decor is a huge part of it. They have the big bud­gets for fit­ting out restau­rants slickly. Some strike up an as­so­ci­a­tion with a food celebrity or chef. This be­stows an in­stant halo of qual­ity that rarely, if ever, truly re­flects ei­ther the skill of the tit­u­lar per­son or the orig­i­nal famed es­tab­lish­ment, but lends faux le­git­i­macy to the fact that their prices are the same, or higher even, than lo­cal in­de­pen­dents. Chains are as­tute at mar­ket­ing too. For in­stance, by re­fus­ing to take book­ings so as to cre­ate a queue out­side, they make peo­ple think that they must be serving some­thing spe­cial. I’ve spent 40 min­utes in a chain wait­ing for the beeper to ring, only to find that there are lots of free ta­bles in­side. There’s no doubt in my mind that over­all, in­de­pen­dents serve in­fin­itely su­pe­rior food, are bet­ter value, and are, quite sim­ply, more in­ter­est­ing. They rep­re­sent a hugely im­por­tant out­let for gen­uinely lo­cal, high-class pro­duce that keeps cities var­ied and dis­tinc­tive. They em­ploy and train up lo­cals as pro­fes­sional chefs, not merely as re­heaters and as­sem­blers of pre-pre­pared food. Use them or lose them.

Good Food con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor Joanna is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten about food for 25 years. She is also a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to BBC Ra­dio 4.

I was served khaki green sludge as ‘co­rian­der salsa’. It could have been boilin-the-bag for all the flavour it had

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