No, the reason the chains are shrinking is that they were the great commissary of the American middle class, and the middle class is itself a besieged and crippled entity. There are more proximate causes: high food prices, for example. But in the natural order of things, the chains would just respond by raising prices or shrinking portions. They can’t really do the latter because big portions are to chain restaurants what drunken co-eds are to the nation’s pay-per-view industry. The economy is hurting generally, that’s true. But the QSR sector, as it’s called by the industry (quick service restaurants, or fast food to you) is doing great. And the reason it’s doing great is because families that were eating fajita quesadilla platters for dinner are now eating less expensive fare like Hardee’s Thickburgers instead.
It’s amazing to consider that, at least until the last couple of years, chain restaurants were considered by many foodies as the ultimate sign of American crassness and philistinism, the peppy, processed hell to which urban dwellers were exiled when they moved to the suburbs. In reality, they were one of America’s greatest achievements. They were places where any American could go to have a nice dining experience, with genial servers and attractive, relatively high-quality food, in big portions. And, best of all, patrons didn’t need to wait to go there on Friday night, or for a special occasion; miracle of miracles, they could go there on a Tuesday night, just because. More important, these restaurants provided decent jobs to thousands of Americans. But no more. The fact that the fast-casual chains are hurting also means that tiny bistros in cities may not be able to stay open and keep serving squab with foraged mushrooms and microgeens. And that little diner you saw Guy Fieri eat chili at on TV? Its owner is barely squeezing enough out of it to pay his rent. That picturesque coffee shop? The landmark luncheonette that has been its town’s unofficial social center for six decades? They might all be gone by the time the next Adele record comes out. As recently as The Gilmore Girls, the local diner was an unironic setting for romance. That was just a few years ago. Today, Luke would be working for Lorelai’s father, selling insurance.