For reasons I do not entirely understand, I have a habit of periodically reading articles about the restaurant industry. I have never owned a restaurant nor have I ever worked in one, but the industry has an odd appeal, though ‘appeal’ may not be the right word. Especially strange is the fact that most of my reading about the industry focuses on the fast-casual segment, a subset of restaurants I take pains to avoid. I find the reliable sameness of fast-casual restaurants offensive, though in all honesty I cannot say the food is bad. But I can say it is formulaic. The menu and its delivery at one Chile’s is the same as every other Chile’s; an Olive Garden is an Olive Garden is an Olive Garden. Even servers’ gratuitous smiles are the same from place to place, as if the corporate directors of the chains successfully isolated the ideal wait staff gene and spliced it into all new hires.
My disdain for fast-casual restaurant establishments, then, should suggest I would avoid reading about the segment’s successes and failures in building traffic and its year-over-year and quarter-over-quarter same-store sales. But that’s precisely what I read. I read about certain players in the segment bucking the discounting and couponing trends in an effort to return stores to profitability. I read about industry executives who ponder whether the corporate sameness of their locations might turn away significant segments of their would-be customer base (duh). And I read about menu trends that seem, to me, far too late in coming to the game, well after the restaurant-going public’s tastes have changed from reliably boring burgers and fries to tofu and kimchi (or whatever).
Perhaps my interest in reading about fast-casual restaurants is based not on my appreciation of the industry segment and what it’s doing right, but on my dislike of the way it treats customers as an entity in the aggregate, versus individuals. Perhaps I enjoy reading that the segment’s efforts to maximize profitability by cookie-cutter approaches to diner satisfaction seem to lead to an ever-illusory ‘customer-for-life’ that never seems satisfied with the latest trends. But why would those things give me some form of satisfaction? Maybe I have a secret or not-so-secret wish to create a fast-casual restaurant that would flout convention restaurant wisdom in its efforts to satisfy a patron base that would appreciate unique food, experimentation, and an appeal to some primal food-lust that blossoms in just the right environment. Yeah, that’s it. That’s what it is.
It all goes back to my fixation on creating a Third Place, a Third Place with food and conviviality and comfort. And I read about places that are most certainly NOT Third Places in order to know what to avoid. Or, perhaps, my periodic habit of reading articles about the fast-casual segment of the restaurant industry rests on something else entirely. Who know?