Taste: Scene: Breaking the Chains

“Wid all deese chains movin’ in, you god Applebee’s, you god T.G.I.Friday’s … it’s gonna push da liddle guys out.”

We are at Ruth’s Chris Steak House on Broad, lit by one of its trademark faux-ram’s-horn lamps, facing the trademark taxidermy and listening to our bartender, Tom. Like most Philadelphians, Tom lives in fear of the occupation of the city’s prime real estate by the well-equipped rollout armies of national restaurant chains. Ted’s Montana Grill (Ted being Turner, the chain’s twist being bison meat) in the old Avenue B spot at Broad and Spruce. Applebee’s in the old Bookbinder’s spot on 15th. The Melting Pot across from the Convention Center. Ruby Tuesday in the old Coach store at Liberty Place. And of course, the Ruth’s Chris in which we sit is one of an 88-restaurant chain.

In 1997, the Hard Rock Café needed the $58 million Reading Headhouse and a cache of tax breaks to lure it to Market Street. Of the variables that restaurant-chain operators plug into spreadsheets to calculate whether a location is desirable — population growth, average disposable income, food and beverage taxes — Philadelphia came up short in nearly every column. But then the city stopped losing citizens, Center City started gaining singles, and Stephen Starr opened 15 separate restaurants, most of which grossed millions annually. No fewer than 15 chain restaurant operators, you can bet, began feeling seriously stupid.

But Starr so outpaced the chains, says Chris Muller, who runs the University of Central Florida’s Center for Multi-Unit Restaurant Management, that we may actually be forever ­under-chained. Muller lives near Orlando, home base of Darden Restaurants, the multi-billion-dollar conglomerate that brought you Olive Garden and Red Lobster. There are 15 Darden restaurants in a 15-mile radius of Muller’s house. “You don’t even have a Lux Cafe in Philly, do you?” he says with pity, referring to the dramatic upscale “concept” launched recently by the Cheesecake Factory. Actually, we don’t even have a Cheesecake Factory in city limits. Although the restaurant sector has been the region’s one engine of non-health-care-­related economic growth over the past 10 years, we’ve added only a handful of chains.

And of course, as Tom the bartender will tell you, not all chains are bad. Not all of them have glossy menus with photographs of food served in portions the size of small children, or white zinfandel of the caliber that we were given complimentary samples of when I dined recently at the Olive Garden. The one thing all chains do have in common is an overriding, consistent and easy-to-remember “concept.” “It reduces the amount of time the customer spends deciding where to go,” Muller explains. “Chain restaurants make life easier.” “Concept” isn’t another word for “evil.” It’s the same phenomenon that is in part behind the success of Starr restaurants on one end of the spectrum, and cozy, adventurous, independently owned BYOBs on the other — “concepts” Philly diners have continued, thankfully, to choose over the Olive Garden every day.