Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Essential Inhumanity of Chain Restaurants

People dislike chain restaurants for the wrong reasons. Many detractors are mere snobs, who recall from the commonness of these businesses and their customers. Others object strictly out of health or environmental concerns (in "Fast Food Nation", author Eric Schlosser concedes  that, sure, the food at fast food chains tastes great, but...). Most commonly, people recoil instinctively from big businesses. I don't share that reaction. If Burger King were to serve fantastically delicious food, I'd be deliriously happy and give them tons of business. I don't drive 75 miles out of my way for greatness because I enjoy hemorrhaging time and energy!

But Burger King can't make fantastically delicious food (at least not for a few more years), because deliciousness is achieved via the personal expression of caring, talented human beings. Chain restaurants, by contrast, function without anything like that in the loop. Assembly line food production methods are geared toward uniformity, rather than deliciousness, so these places are designed, above and beyond all, to snuff out any possibility that individual expression might reach the food. Not only is the process talentless, it's anti-talent.

It's a reality of mass market food service. Operating hundreds or thousands of restaurants, it would be unthinkable to rely upon the talent and diligence of actual chefs. So the system is designed to spit out food simulation without the use of chefs, and without actual cooking. Instead, these places (even the "nice" ones like Olive Garden, Cheesecake Factory, and Red Lobster) fabricate, operate and reheat. The workers are generic, poorly paid drones. There is no human care in the process...unless something goes wrong.

For a few weeks in the early 1990's, a skinny kid who worked at the White Castle in Astoria, Queens would ignore the bell ordering him to flip the burgers. With an intent gaze, he'd wait an extra minute or two, letting the burgers get slightly crunchy. They were better that way! He took pride in his innovation, and enjoyed an admiring following of customers. I'm sure I don't need to tell you that he was quickly purged.

That was something good going wrong in the process. Here's the dark side - the disgusting result when restaurant workers are trained to repress pride and detach emotions from the end product (and, despite the banner, I don't think they're stupid; just horrendously detached and dehumanized):

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