Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why You Can't Do Fast Casual Dining Ironically

A few weeks ago, I walked into the Uptown Minneapolis Chipotle and was greeted by a sign announcing that no carnitas would be available. Luckily, my meat of choice at Chipotle is steak and I was there to try out Sofritas, the fast casual dining giant’s new vegan option. My Facebook news feed later informed me that Chipotle had pulled its pork option (look, a pun) from at least 400 of its locations upon discovering that one of its major pork suppliers had failed to comply with the chain’s animal welfare standards. Chipotle, it appears, is actually holding itself and its suppliers ethically accountable to the animals it depends on for profit.

 This information came to me at the height of my seemingly inexplicable obsession with the fast casual restaurant industry, particularly in its marketing and aesthetic practices: these places specifically position themselves in a realm between "fast food" and "casual dining," eschewing the table service of a casual family restaurant while promising higher quality, fresher cuisine than a typical fast food joint. The middlebrow result of these promises is what interested me. This phase doesn’t seem so inexplicable anymore, however; I think I’ve found the root of my fascination, which is that you can’t really do fast casual dining ironically. Something about how these companies market themselves commands the trust, rather than eyebrows raised hungrily tongue-in-cheek, of consumers, and when the chance to make a fast casual dining experience into a joke arises the company often delivers the punchline before we can.

What do I mean by “do fast casual dining ironically”? Think of spontaneous “Dude, what if we went to Arby’s right now?!?!?!!?” moments in your life. If there are none-- and there's no shame in that, considering the vast majority of people are probably more focused on eating for sustenance than eating to project an impression (I fall into both camps and, full disclaimer, really, really enjoy most of the bland American chains I mention throughout this article)--imagine a group of bored young adults stranded after bar close whose preferences have somehow shifted from “what is available for me to eat?” to “what would be the most ridiculous thing possible to eat right now?” The answer will almost never be a fast-casual dining establishment, at first for logistical purposes and then for the reason that it’s just not that funny to eat because the management is dead serious.

The first reason is about timing: while in any decently populated metro area in the U.S. you can find family-style chains like Denny’s or fast food drive-thrus open around the clock, the likes of Qdoba, Five Guys and Au Bon Pain are simply not open that late. If you’re not trekking out for refreshments at two a.m. (bar close in my current city of residence, Minneapolis), you can, of course, eat at a fast casual restaurant. But the likelihood of running to Panera Bread on your 40-minute lunch break in a burst of ironic motivation seems highly unlikely. Of course, now that I’ve said this, I expect everyone reading this article to announce to their coworkers around 12 p.m. tomorrow that it would be totally absurd to hit up Potbelly and spend a cool $8.50.

Neither does price of fast casual dining lend itself to ridiculous eating: while you’re not signing up for a gourmet meal by going out to Noodles and Company, you are sinking about $8-15 on your food when you could get the same amount for less than five bucks at the Taco Bell across the street. Actually, there probably isn’t a Taco Bell across the street from the Noodles and Company in question because throughout my “research” I’ve found that fast casual restaurants tend to cluster around each other the same way other similarly-priced institutions do. I think of some of my fondest memories: the road trips of my childhood and my family’s options at each stop being Bob Evans, Eat’n’Park or Steak’n’Shake (for a super fun challenge, look up the usual regional locations of these places to find out where my family used to travel in our white Honda Odyssey named Bill that I insisted was a “girl car.”) But I digress: a meal at Cosi requires more than pocket change and, therefore, less spontaneity and less potential for yuks than a trip through the Burger King drive-thru. 

But the price can’t be the only thing holding us back from making fast casual places the site of ironic joys. After all, pricier casual family dining chains such as Applebee’s and Perkins have served as a pilgrimage site for twenty-somethings looking to people-watch the poor slobs who frequent such joints (I’m allowed to say “poor slobs” because I used to go to Baker’s Square every week in high school to sincerely enjoy Free Pie Wednesday surrounded by octogenarians) or attend the world’s most unlikely “adult” venue. I’d suggest taking a look at artist Dorian Electra’s well-documented fascination with Applebee’s to understand the wondrous potential for the absurd in the world of family dining. Bennigan’s and Big Boy maintain Disney-levels of seriousness about the wholesome fun they offer to families, providing room for customers to make their own fun around these institutions. Chipotle senses its own comic possibilities and once offered its customers free food on the condition that they show up as silver-wrapped human burritos on Halloween. Again, fast casual is serious but not na├»ve: it can predict the end of the joke before we do.


In fact, in the fast casual dining I’ve “researched” (as in, ate at and asked my Chipotle and Noodles and Company employee friends about, my own food service industry experience being in a concession stand at a hockey rink) in the past few months there lies a sinisterly banal undertone: “eat less-processed, more-ethically-obtained food here!' they say. "Work at our company and make a career out of it! Sit back, relax and enjoy—we won’t rush you the way McDonald’s might.”

But what do we make, then, of the fact that Chipotle’s CEOs make more money than the vast majority of chief executives in the country’s largest 100 companies? What do we make of the sterility of the decor (which deserves a study to itself), the selectively chosen hip and friendly fonts, the Twitter campaigns and the buddy-buddy feel between management and customer that seems to pale when we realize these qualities necessarily fall under the backdrop of a corporate world dependent upon capitalism and hierarchy? My best answer is that if my interest mainly lies in how hard it is to eat “ironically” at a Chipotle, Fazoli’s or Culvers, perhaps what we really ought to delve into is just how the management at such places disallows the irony because it beats customers in their own race.

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