The Chains That Bind (or, How Many People Can I Piss Off This Time?)

Story time, kiddies!  Once upon a time, there were two natural foods stores in Texas.  The couple who ran one of them actually lived at the store for a while after being evicted for storing foodstuffs in their apartment.  Rather than compete with each other for business, they decided to join forces and create a natural foods supermarket.  The supermarket was 10,500 square feet and started with 19 employees.  Believe it or not, that was pretty big compared to most of their ilk at the time.  Less than a year had gone by when a flood basically destroyed the uninsured store.  In most cases, the whole thing would have been a huge loss, but customers, neighbors and friends pulled together to clean the place up.  Vendors and creditors cut them some slack as well, and the store re-opened mere weeks later.  Over the next few years, the supermarket grew more popular and financially stable.  Eventually, expansion was inevitable; first into other cities, and then into other states.  Other natural foods stores were absorbed, and other natural foods chains.  Exposure grew through partnerships, including ones with foodie television shows.  The little supermarket that could eventually became something of a benchmark of the natural foods juggernaut, a trend that shows no signs of stopping.  Have you figured out who I'm talking about yet?

That's right, it's none other than Whole Foods, a store that I have unashamedly been in love with since I first saw them on Top Chef several years ago.  When I finally got to visit one in person, I felt like I did as a child the first time I walked into Toys R’ Us.   The cheese selection alone made me dizzy, there were more racks of wine than I could get into a single photograph, and the produce looked like it has been laid out for a television show.  I hoped and hoped that one day they might deign to put one in Boise, and recently that wish was granted.  But not before a lot of backlash and griping on local message boards.  Locals rallied behind the buy local/support small business banners.  And of course this type of behavior isn’t limited to stores.  If anything, it’s more prevalent in the restaurant market.  I don’t think a week goes by that a Treasure Valley eatery doesn’t post something about this on their Facebook page.  I remember being a teenager and all the bitching that was directed at Starbucks when they first came to town.  People back then were rallying around Moxie Java.  Nowadays the local coffee elitists have many more options to choose from, and you don’t hear so much about Moxie Java anymore.  Why is that?  Is it because, as I’ve always said, they just aren’t that good?  Is it because they expanded beyond Idaho?  They’re still headquartered here.  Maybe they just have too many locations and don’t “feel” local anymore?  If that’s the case, how many locations is too many?  The line has to be somewhere, right?  Perhaps we should set standards for this.  If a beloved local eatery expands to other states, or is bought out by an out-of-state interest, or has more than three locations, screw ‘em!

Of course, there is the other side of the coin: why?  Good is good, right?  If you like a place, why would you stop supporting it?  Why be biased against a place just because they existed somewhere else before they came here?  I know, I know, sometimes other issues are involved.  We don’t want our money going to support someone somewhere else.  Maybe I’m just too much of a sensualist, but I lose interest in all of these politics pretty quickly.  I support things that make me happy.  A lot of the anger about Whole Foods coming to town had to do with the effect it would have on the Boise Co-op.  You wanna know a secret?  I didn’t care much for the Co-op before Whole Foods showed up here.  It was dark, it was cramped, it was overpriced, a lot of the employees were snobby, and the whole place smelled like B.O. and patchouli most of the time.  These days I’m much happier to stop at the Co-op when I’m in the area.  Hell, I usually combine it with a trip to Whole Foods.  It’s better lit now, there is space to move through the aisles, their deli offerings have been expanded, the staff is more professional, some of the prices are better (though neither they nor Whole Foods are cheap by any means) and yes, it even smells better.  Ideally, that’s what a little competition should do, right?  Make you step up your game?  It’s too easy to be less than your best when you’re the only game in town. 

The snobby shit shows up on my Facebook page from time to time as well, and a lot of people probably think I share those views because I’ve written some pretty negative reviews of chain eateries.  Here’s the thing: there are a lot of chains I hate, and a lot of things about chains that I hate, but I don’t hate or avoid a place just because it’s a chain.  I don’t avoid McDonald’s because they’re a chain, because they’re unhealthy, or because of where they source their ingredients from.  I avoid them because their food sucks.  I avoid TGI Friday’s because I find their atmosphere irritating.  I avoid Chili’s and Applebee’s because they aren’t serving anything that I can’t get better somewhere else.  But going back to that McDonald’s example, I'll bet you anything that their food now tastes NOTHING like the food at that first restaurant.  All of these places had a first restaurant, you see.  Kentucky Fried Chicken (to hell with your attempts at being hip with your KFC crap, you’ll always be Kentucky Fried Chicken to me) didn’t simultaneously open 100 locations all over the country.  None of these places did.  They opened in one place and grew based on product and business acumen.  By the same token, I’m not going to support a place JUST because they’re local.  I want to be very, VERY clear here.  I love supporting local businesses, and businesses that support my local area, but it's not enough.  You’re not going to hear me say “Well, I do like the pie at Marie Callender’s better, but I buy mine at Bertha’s Pie Hut.  It may cost more, but it’s not bad and I prefer to support local businesses.”  You can have your elitist foodie cred.  As for me, I’ll be enjoying myself at the place whose product I dig the most.  If you want my business, don’t patronize me by trying to appeal to my hometown loyalties.   Work on making your product the best in town, and my support will come naturally.  I don’t go on about my love for Momo Dumplings just because they’re a local business.  Same thing with Big Daddy’s Barbecue,  Cacicia’s, RiceWorks, Lorena’s Mexican Grill...I may be more vocal about them because they’re small and can use the word of mouth, but I support them because they’re great people and I love the food they make.  But in the end, I don't care if you're my next door neighbor's hot dog stand or The Cheesecake Factory, serve me good food competently and in a mostly pleasant environment, and I'll probably be back.  Make it excellent food (especially if it's something or some way that nobody else is doing it around here), pleasant service and an enjoyable environment and you not only have my continued business, but I'll also rave about you to anybody who will listen.

I hope I’ve gotten some of you thinking.  And you just may have an opportunity to see this play out for yourself soon.  Boise Fry Company is opening their fourth location next month in Meridian.  It is also their first franchise location.  The next planned locations are in Oregon and Texas.  It will certainly be interesting to see how their fanbase reacts…

1 comment:

  1. This encapsulates my thoughts on where food comes from also. If it's good, I'll eat it. And the first thing I thought of when I got the gist of where this was going was Boise Fry Company. All the haters better start hatin'...