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Understanding Albany’s Love of Chains

June 26, 2014

Earlier this week in response to the frenzy over the Whole Foods opening in Colonie Center, Chris Churchill wrote a thought provoking piece in the Times Union entitled Chains are nice, but homegrown is better.

His arguments for supporting local businesses aren’t new. Nor is his concern about the region’s apparent inferiority complex. Churchill views our collective lust at the arrival of long awaited national brands as a regional desire to validate our existence in this remote (and long shunned) outpost of civilization.

Sure, there’s some truth to that, But I think the reality goes deeper and that he puts too much stock in this superficial argument. Churchill closes the piece with a rhetorical question, which perhaps is supposed to serve as a Socratic proof of sorts.

Here’s a question: Do you think people in San Francisco, a self-assured town if there ever was one, care that it lacks a Sonic?

And, when you visit a city like San Francisco, do you return and say, “Chinatown was OK, but what really impressed me was that Costco I found out in the ‘burbs!”

I don’t think he’s going to like my answer.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to help see a problem for what it is. Is there a regional inferiority complex? Absolutely. You can hear it whenever anyone tells you that Albany is great because it’s only three hours from Manhattan, Boston and Montreal.

But even “self-assured towns” like San Francisco go gaga for chains they don’t have. No, maybe not Sonic. However, you should have seen the lengths that people would go through to get their hands on an In-N-Out burger when it was an LA only chain. As soon as the first outpost opened up in Northern California, it was mobbed. The line for Beard Papa, which is a chain specializing in cream puffs, would take almost an hour to get through in its first few months. And when we finally got a Baja Fresh, my Southern Californian colleagues were over the moon.

Do you know where tourists flock to when they visit San Francisco? The mall. Granted, it’s a mall on the water. But it’s still a flippin’ mall. I know because I worked at an ad agency across the street from Pier 39 on Fisherman’s Wharf for a spell. I’d go to the excellent Italian sandwich shop around the corner–which was filled entirely with locals–and bring my lunch to a bench by the waterfront. There I would watch tourists from all around the world completely miss out on the real San Francisco.

They would eat at Bubba Gumps and queue up to buy the same Ghirardelli chocolate they could get at any supermarket in America. At least they got to see some sea lions and maybe if they were lucky get to try some industrial produced clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl.

Even the tourists who make it to Chinatown usually stick to Grant Avenue. It’s a trap. The real Chinatown is out in the Sunset district. But if you’re downtown, Stockton Street is where you’ll find the locals. Grant Avenue is mostly filled with souvenir shops and street hawkers who will hustle you into a sub par restaurant and give you mediocre food for a lot more money than its worth.

It’s no wonder that people feel better about going to P.F. Chang’s.

People go to chains after they’ve been burned. Many of those local restaurants and other businesses that have been slugging it out in the Capital Region have dropped the ball. It doesn’t take that many underseasoned, overcooked, overpriced plates of chicken parm to send customers in droves to the Olive Garden. No, the chain will never be brilliant, but it will almost never be disappointing. You always know what you are going to get. And to some, that’s all they need. There is only so much disappointment people can take.

Seriously, look at the way people talk about food in this town. They sing its praises by citing its lack of negatives like, “The pasta wasn’t overcooked or mushy.” And places that people like are said to, “Not disappoint.”

That is telling in and of itself.

Churchill writes, “It’s time to turn attention toward building a stronger roster of homegrown stores and restaurants.” And I can’t argue with that. The good news is that I see it happening more and more. We’ve got better cheese, better coffee, better bakeries, better burgers, and better cocktails than when I arrived seven years ago now.

But why wasn’t this charge taken up earlier?

Let me take a stab at answering that. Because before the big national chains started to roll in, this region was starved of competition. Local players were comfortable and didn’t have to strive beyond mediocrity to stay in business. But the unintended consequence of that was a growing consumer resentment.

What we see today in the frenzy of any new grocery store opening is the result of that resentment. These national chains aren’t a validation of our existence. No. They are a saving grace from the tyranny of the mediocrity that has surrounded us for far too long.

But that still doesn’t explain why anyone would want a Sonic.

That requires a slightly different answer, which Churchill might have uncovered if he looked deeper into his question about San Francisco. Places like Baja Fresh and Sonic aren’t that great. They aren’t. But to those people who have experienced and enjoy those specific flavor profiles, it’s a taste of the past. And for better or for worse, it’s an itch that can’t be scratched by a higher quality option.

As the Capital Region grows, new residents are moving in from around the country and around the world. I can’t blame them for wanting a taste of home, whatever that may be. The upside of that is we’re getting some much better ethnic food. The downside is a hunger for Sonic that cannot be satisfied with a trip to Pirates Lakeside Grill.

As for me, I love independent stores with regional character as much as the next person. Maybe even more. But I have been super excited at the arrivals of all the new players in the grocery space, and have seen the improvements that competition has brought to the previously stagnant stores.

It’s not time for people to start supporting independent businesses. Rather, it’s long past time for many of those places to up their game, and recapture the market they lost. But it’s an uphill battle. Getting someone who has been burned back in the door is a lot harder than enticing them with something shiny and new.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 26, 2014 3:49 pm

    Very well said. I recently read an article about the opening of Whole Foods. What followed was some nasty mud slinging that left me thinking . . . WHY????

    Competition is inevitable. It can be scary. But competition is not a negative thing. Getting nasty about it only turns off existing and potential customers. Competition forces all parties to either bring their A game or bow out (hopefully gracefully). Maybe it forces an existing business to remember who they are, while the new guy fights for a piece of the pie. Either way, the results are often in favor of the customer on both ends. Getting ugly about it only exposes a lack of professionalism and fear.

    I never thought about the aspect of “affirmation” . . . . “We have Whole Foods”, so we must be somebody. Interesting. I think there’s much more of that going on then I would of ever guessed . . . subconsciously even.

  2. June 26, 2014 4:20 pm

    So your logic is that because tourists flock to Pier 39, that proves San Francisco is a chain loving town? I’m not following.

    It’s true that SFers mobbed Trader Joe and Whole Foods when they first opened, but that just proves they’re interested in the new and different and don’t automatically dismiss it because it’s a chain. What’s important is that San Francisco supports originality and, unlike in most cases in the Cap District, restauranteurs and retailers know that and dare to be brave.

    • June 27, 2014 12:08 am

      Not quite. In an attempt to condemn our excitement for chains, Churchill rhetorically asked, “When you visit a city like San Francisco, do you return and say, ‘Chinatown was OK, but what really impressed me was that Costco I found out in the ‘burbs!’”

      While tourists may not get excited about the Costco, they are packing them in at Bubba Gumps, Rainforest Cafe, and even Johnny Rockets on the Embarcadero. And how many people stop in to the Ben & Jerry’s at the corner of Haight & Ashbury?

      The logic is that people like chains. Not just Capital Region dwellers who have had their souls crushed with years of neglect, mediocrity and disappointment. And people will flock to them even when on vacation in a place full of great independent establishments.

      Sure, too many chains will create an unfortunate homogeneity across Everytown, USA. And one of Albany’s charms is the strength and character of its better independent businesses. But there is an upside to chains too.

      As long as I’ve been here, the Capital Region has always been protective of its institutions. And I believe the protectionist instinct is deeply rooted in Albany’s past. I would hate to see places like the Playdium razed for a slick modern bowling chain (if such a thing exists). But someone had to call BS on the rhetoric coming from the TU. It was weak and superficial. There is a lot more at play here than the article would have you believe.

  3. Stevo permalink
    June 27, 2014 12:17 am

    Everyone makes valid points

    But to compare any smaller metropolitan area such as Albany, with San Fran or any large city is not fair. There’s a reason the best restaurants in the country are (for the most part) found in big cities.

    Albany should be compared to places like Austin Texas. That’s a far more fair comparison.

    But having said that, I think Albany is a working class, average Joe town, and will be for the foreseeable future (and I don’t use that term as a pejorative in the slightest). The fact the food scene here has come as far as it has in the last decade is wonderful and bodes well for the future of the area.

    • Catherine permalink
      July 14, 2014 11:51 pm

      Austin is a MUCH bigger city than Albany. In fact, Austin is a bigger city than San Francisco. If you take Schenectady, Albany, and Troy in one lump sum, a more accurate comparison is Boise, ID. Albany alone can be compared to Kenosha, WI.

      I know that this seems trivial, but my point is just that in terms of quality of food in the Capital District, most of it is still just okay. We have a long way to go before we have the variety available in Austin. I can think of just a small handful of Albany restaurants with dynamic and creative menus, but you’re right–that’s still more than there were several years ago!

      • July 15, 2014 12:29 am

        I have to jump in here, because I’ve never thought city size is the way to look at this issue. My preference is to look at DMA ranks. Albany and Austin used to be a fair bit closer in rankings, but these days we are further apart.

        You can see the list here:

        But in reality, we are closer to Providence (which has a better food scene) and Wilkes Barre-Scranton (which is a bit rougher around the edges). The SF DMA is ranked #6, Austin is #40, and we are all the way down at #58 (in the 2013-2014 report).

  4. mondoqt permalink
    June 27, 2014 12:33 pm

    Right you are re Albany’s protectionist culture and its negative effects on restaurants and food stores. And I don’t think the problemt has anything to do with being “a working class average Joe town”. There are plenty of “average Joe” places with killer food. The attitude stems from the area’s history of patroons and entrenched political machines. If chains help crack that ‘tude, God bless ’em!

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