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Off the Chain

Why this food writer always chooses local over corporate.



Chain restaurants. There's rarely anything unique about what's on the menu, which can come across as static and oblivious to seasonality. Portion size, not to mention caloric, sodium and fat content, are usually off-the-chart ridiculous. And don't get me started on their frequency using frozen entrees and desserts or premade bags of soup. Nope, nope, nope.

Despite being a baby boomer, my allegiance to chain restaurants lines up neatly with that of millennials. Translation? I look at a restaurant meal — whether a simple salad or a full tasting menu — as an experience, not a filling station, so I avoid chain restaurants, as studies show millennials do. For me, choosing to eat at Olive Garden or Chipotle is about as soul-sucking a way to spend my limited restaurant dollars as I can imagine. So I don't.

I know there are people who'll say that everyone has not only their chain favorites, but standard orders at those places. That is, after all, the premise of Style Weekly's focus on chain restaurants and their place in the Richmond dining scene.

But long ago, I made a choice to only support independent restaurants for one simple reason: They're more than businesses because they're actually part of the community. My purchase supports not a corporation, but local residents trying to eke out a living on the slim margins that eateries deliver. Not to be dramatic, but I don't support the chain-restaurant- industrial complex any more than I do the military-industrial complex

So when I want a sandwich, I walk past my neighborhood Subway and Panera to Lift Coffee Shop and Café or Garnett's Cafe, where the sandwiches are named after people I know. I cringe at the student crowds lining up to eat at IHOP Express on Grace Street when they could be downing breakfast a few blocks away at 821 Café, where the art is local and the vibe is pure Richmond. And call me judgmental, but people who'd choose Maggiano's over Dinamo need to have their heads examined.

To be sure, there are times when I'm on the road and it's difficult to ferret out an independent on a roadside sign plastered with corporate logos. But experience has taught me that where there's a Hardee's or KFC, there's likely a mom-and-pop place that existed long before the corporate giants moved in to infringe on their territory, and I'm willing to gamble on finding it. Just off of a remote stretch of Interstate 66 was the Red Truck Bakery in downtown Marshall, where I savored a house-made herb-studded roll overstuffed with fat slices of ham and cheese not half a mile from a McDonald's. It was exactly the kind of place I can get behind.

This isn't a plea to abandon your favorite chain restaurants. We each vote with our restaurant dollars in our own ways. Personally, I don't want mine supporting the big guys when there are so many worthy independents out there. Because as Albus Dumbledore said, "It's not our abilities that show what we truly are, it's our choices."

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