I’ve written many times about the unique alchemy, the fellowship, if you will, that’s created when we gather together at the table and eat a meal prepared for us with the care, and even love, of a chef.
There’s a reason many religious services revolve around food and drink — participating in the communion of sustenance that’s been prepared for you, whether alone or with a group, can transcend mere nutrition. You’re eating not just nutrients and calories, but the time, effort, and intention with which that food has been made.
Now, when you submit to the siren song of national advertising and the industrial behemoth that processed-food makers and national chain restaurants have fashioned — the salty, spongy chew of “Italian” bread sticks or the steaming pile of bargain-priced, gargantuan crab legs that arrive overcooked and rubbery — it’s not quite the same. Sure, you’ll leave that table full, and quite often the food may have tasted pretty good (they’ve literally engineered it to do so!). But those meals will never come close to the feel and taste of egg yolks and anchovies whisked with care by a gentleman who’s charming you with the dish’s history as he coaxes the dressing into an emulsion, or the crunchy surprise of delicately pink watermelon radishes, crisp and tangy, cut into tiny half-moons by hand to perk up the bowl of soup invented by someone who’s slicing and sautéing just steps away from you.
When you eat at a chain restaurant, you’re not only sending your hard-earned money away from our region to a corporate headquarters in another state, but the food is often mostly prepared far away as well, in an industrial kitchen, to be reheated in the microwave or vacuum-sealed baggie near you. The sauce topping your burger was packaged in Illinois or Utah, shipped thousands of miles, and squirted on top of that frozen and grilled patty garnished with a dried out, mostly green slice of bland tomato and plopped into a mass-produced white roll.
It’s one thing to talk about chains versus locally owned restaurants in the abstract, to debate the weaknesses of small businesses against the consistency and affordability of national, fast-casual and sit-down eateries. I don’t mean to lecture — you certainly have earned the right to eat what you like and spend your disposable income as you see fit.
But recent closures in our the Northern New York community — like Dano’s Pizzeria in Felts Mills and, I’m told, Riccardo’s on Arsenal Street, restaurants run by local people that were quite good and seemingly beloved by many — spurred me to think more about why so many people choose chains over family-run eateries and how to turn the tide. I don’t knock those who choose chains once in a while — heck, there are some national burritos and breakfast sandwiches out there I crave sometimes, myself — but I do question a society that sustains the processed and homogeneous over the handcrafted and locally owned.
I turned to some of our resident food experts for further information. My buddy Andy Wehrle, who has cooked at The Kitchen, Skewed Brewing and DiPrinzio’s Italian Market (also recently shuttered), and is now planning a move to the Mid-Atlantic, where the market can better support an independent chef capable of creative cuisine, lent the following opinion:
“The chains make it incredibly difficult for privately owned restaurants. I think they sort of warp people’s perceptions of certain foods/cuisines, and I get it: someone created it and there is a lot of work that goes into chains; I would even say that working in a chain restaurant could offer someone a great opportunity to learn about speed and volume, but at the same time, I can tell you for sure that the national Italian chain, with an outlet on Arsenal Street, is not anything like any of the food I had in Italy when I lived there.”
He added, “There is so much in-your-face marketing as well that smaller restaurants can’t afford to compete.”
I’m as susceptible as everyone else to the vibrant commercials promising delectable food at nationwide locations. But what I’ve learned is that the food you receive in those locations seldom looks anything like those very expensive images. Did you know that food stylists use solid shortening in place of vanilla ice cream, and that white school glue is often used to look like milk? The shortening doesn’t melt at room temperature, you see, and the trans fats in it feather when you scoop it just like the ice crystals in the real thing.
But local restaurants, owned by mothers and fathers paying for their kids’ dance classes and hockey equipment, struggling to meet new minimum wage requirements for their wait staff and kitchen crews, and hoping to have enough left over to turn a profit, can’t afford lavish advertising. Television spots don’t come cheap, and I’ve never even met a food stylist in our area. How can they possibly compete?
In the Southern Tier, local restaurateurs have banded together to form the Southern Tier Independent Restaurants, or STIR. The organization combines resources to advertise locally, put on culinary events, and sponsor scholarships for local students who want to pursue food careers.
Paul VanSavage, the group secretary, says, "...by promoting the concept of eating local and featuring local independent establishments, we hope to drive business in our direction."
It's working; local restaurants in Binghamton and surrounding villages are seeing a surge in business, and restaurant weeks in Binghamton and Endicott further help introduce residents and visitors to local eateries. In the past couple of years, new brew pubs, brick oven pizzerias, and southwest restaurants have flourished in the area.
I had heard that Shuler’s Restaurant, on the north side of Watertown, has been struggling, despite good food crafted by a veteran chef, a refreshed and comfortable interior and the positive review I gave it last year.
I reached out to co-owner Terry Williams, who said, “I think that all of us struggle with the Arsenal Street issue … Like everyone else, the minimum wage increase, waitress wage increase and increasing food costs really impact us smaller, family style restaurants more than it does the chains, making it harder to turn a profit with increasing prices or surcharges, which we are trying to avoid.”
In Shuler’s case, he said, “Our other struggle is the north side factor. We have people tell us all the time that they forget we are over ‘here.’ We have discussed ways to try and make us a destination restaurant, by trying to offer what we have been told is some of the best prime rib in town, and offering a Wednesday prime rib special to get people to try it. We also try to let people know that we are one of the few restaurants that offer home-style food like chicken and biscuits, house-made meatloaf, liver and onions etc.”
He made me wonder: Do most people, when deciding where to eat out, automatically head the car in the direction of our concentration of chain restaurants? Do we simply forget about places that might be off the beaten path? It’s no coincidence that the chains are clustered near other commercial outlets — the real estate in these areas is often pricey, and marketing professionals have helped the corporate-owned enterprises get smart about the idea that if the masses are buying goods at national big-box stores, they’re likely to head right next door for dinner, too. So they’ve got you not only via seductive advertising, but location as well.
But is dining out an economic prospect or an emotional one? We must eat to live, but when we dine out, there is a choice to be made between convenience and community. Every time one of these local restaurants is snuffed out, every time a family gives up and turns out the lights of their small business for the final time, not only is that family impacted, but our Northern New York culinary landscape is as well. Yes, there’s a fiscal impact; that family likely spent most of its income locally and employed local people, but whatever family recipes were served at that restaurant are also now gone forever.
In a few years, will we still have Croghan bologna, Utica greens, salt potatoes, Hofmann’s Hots, chicken riggies, and spiedie sandwiches? Will we take our kids for their first meal out at the Boathouse, Tony's, Fairgrounds Inn, Consol's, the Clipper or Shuler’s? Will those kids return one day with their own children? Well, it’s up to you. Will you dine out this week on prime rib, or cheddar biscuits? It’s your call, but be aware: Your choice has an impact on real people and the whole of our community. Please choose wisely.
PS: a reader tipped me off that Riccardo's, in Watertown, may not be gone for good, but just moving. I don't have confirmation yet, but stayed tuned. I would be so happy to report that we can still get that awesome roasted onion appetizer!
PSS: STIR's Tasting Party is coming up this weekend! Will I see you there?