Chain restaurant architecture is a hell of a thing.
Ruby Tuesday, a national casual dining restaurant chain with several stores in Northeast Ohio, announced that it will be closing 95 locations nationwide by September. This news saddened me, as it is yet another blow in the unfolding chain restaurant-pocalypse.
Back when I was 16 years old and had no marketable skills to speak of, one of my first jobs was waitressing at a chain restaurant. For the next seven years I was continually employed by at least one chain restaurant at all times. My career encompassed:
- The Cooker in Indianapolis, IN – now closed
- Pizzeria Uno in Indianapolis, IN – now closed
- Don Pablos in Indianapolis, IN – now closed
- TGI Fridays in Springfield, OH – now closed
- Don Pablos in Beavercreek, OH – shockingly, still open
When I got that first restaurant job I was so, so excited. Picture it: Indianapolis, 1995. I needed to make a car payment and babysitting wasn’t going to cut it. I wanted a glamorous job, one where I could work evenings and weekends, make money, eat as many honey drop biscuits as I wanted, and wear a tie. Restaurant work was my answer and the dozens of chain restaurants near my home were always, always hiring.
I learned so much from being a waitress in a chain restaurant: how to punch, how to start smoking so you can get more breaks, how to be efficient, how to always be nice to the cooks so they’ll cook you a steak on the fly when you’re an idiot and forget to put in your table’s order and it’s already been 20 minutes, how to treat your tables as though you slightly hate them in order to get more tips, how to ask the manager to be careful about who he hires because, whoever it is, someone’s going to be making out with them in dry storage soon enough.
Part of the reason that almost every restaurant I ever worked as is now closed is because I’m old AF, but mostly they’re closed because America’s love affair with casual dining in the suburbs has ended. When we have the time/money to go out, we’re more likely to go to a locally owned restaurant than a major chain. The chain restaurants are suffering from this shift, and they’re trying to get us back. There are so many promotions now:
“Order the three worst things on the menu and only pay $12.99!”
“$10 for endless frozen appetizers in hopes that you’ll also buy a beer that is marked up so much it will allow us to turn a profit on the transaction!”
“Tuesday nights - your mewling child who never eats anything eats for free!”
“Allow us to harass you via text for the rest of your life and we’ll give you a free brownie sundae!”
It makes me sad that these restaurants are closing, but it also makes sense. Our love affair with 90s suburban sameness has ended – we now crave downtown realness. No one’s impressed when you check into a Ruby Tuesday on Facebook, unless you’re doing it ironically, in which case you’re so far ahead of the irony curve that everyone’s just going to assume your car broke down in front of the restaurant.
The truth is, we have less money than we did in the 90s, and when we go out to eat we want more. The 2008 recession took a bite out of everyone’s disposable income and many of us haven’t yet recovered. When we go out to sit at a table and be served food we want that food to be good – fresh ingredients prepared in ways we have neither the time nor skill to replicate ourselves. When a restaurant cooks everything from scratch, and the recipes don’t come out of board rooms, and the burger hasn’t gone through a focus group, it’s better. Chain restaurants have corporate overlords who need to maximize profit and create a flavor profile that’s acceptable to every human in the US. The food has less taste, less risk, less soul.
I’m deliberately not quoting the Stones when I say so long, Ruby Tuesday. You belong in a different time. At least we’ll always have Rocknes.
(An earlier version of this column referenced a different band in that last paragraph, but it's hard not to bear in mind Paul's incredible performances this week at all hours.)