Monday, June 28, 2010

"Gather 'round the generic stuff"

In today's "Super-Sized" age of the dollar menus, buy-one-get-ones, and over sized portions, restaurants like Appelbee's, Olive Garden, and T.G.I.Fridays rule the roost. Being from sub-suburban Minnesota (not a typo) I'm no stranger to chain restaurants. The town I grew up in wants a $20 steak for $7 and restaurants like Ruby Tuesdays and Red Robin can offer it to them. In the mid 90's, with the rise of the "neighborhood" franchise restaurant, our town absorbed the trend like a sponge. Before I knew it the family owned and operated ma' and pop shop restaurants were replaced by chains offering loud music, drink specials, pre-packaged foods and flare. Unfortunately, Minnesota is NOT an exception to the rule.

I enjoy traveling, and when I do I love to try out the local fare. Whether it's the vinegar based North Carolina BBQ ribs or Old Bay seasoned Crab Cakes from Baltimore, I live for the adventure of trying the local cuisine. Last summer a good friend and I traveled to New York city to watch the Yankee's play the Minnesota Twins. I was excited try the regional cuisine, enjoy the fast paced culture, and explore the many grand attractions of the Big Apple.

On the plane my traveling partner and I decided we wouldn't eat or drink at the same place twice. We wanted to taste New York, nothing we could get back in MN. We had no problem getting a table at quaint little cafes, restaurants & bars. But every time we walked by a Red Lobster or McDonald's the line was snaked out the door. This wouldn't be so disturbing if the people of NYC just liked Red Lobster and McDonald's, but the lines weren't formed by locals, they were formed by tourists! Maybe you are asking yourself, "how do you know they were tourists?" If you have ever been to New York city you know a tourist when you see one, we stick out like a sore thumb: always looking up and bumping into people, taking pictures of street merchants, jumping on and off of the double-decker red tour bus.

When I saw what was going on I was shocked. I assume people travel to New York to see what all the fuss is about (or maybe just see Wicked), but rather than exploring the many local restaurants and cafes that that makes the city so great visitors found themselves dining in chains that they could have eaten in at home. I can identify with them to some degree, if you're going to spend money, you could argue that you would want to spend it on something you know you like. But at that rate you could have saved the money on the plane ticket and traveled to your nearest suburban city to enjoy the "local fare". I realize that food is not the focal point of everyones vacation, but it is a major part of the experience and after all, when in Rome...

This fast food/chain restaurant America that has taken over the US isn't only suffocating local cuisine, it also effects the wine industry. When we dine at chain restaurants we are at the mercy of the corporate wine list. A list that is built by the company's CEO, negotiated based on price and availability. You may have seen the list I'm talking about, without looking I can recite it: Cavit or Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio, Yellow Tail or Kendall Jackson Chardonnay, Barefoot or Blackstone Merlot, and the cherry on top, Sutter Home or Beringer White Zinfandel. Before I go any further I think I better clarify, I have nothing against some of these wines. While it's true I do prefer smaller, more artisan examples that showcase the region from which which the wine hails, I also think that there is a time and place for SOME of the large, commercial wineries that litter the chain restaurant wine list.

One of the most popular wines in the United States is the Kendall Jackson Chardonnay. It's also the most ordered wine in restaurants across the country. If you took it out of chain restaurants and only offered it in retail locations and independently owned restaurants you could cut their production in half. But with monsters like Applebee's, Chile's, Buffalo Wild Wings (etc, etc, etc) accounting for a large percentage of the domestic restaurant wine sales what do we expect? We have reduced our pleasure senses to where we don't even care about the producer or region, words like "Chardonnay" or "Pinot Noir" seems to suffice a wine order. Would you ever go to a grocery store and say "Banana" or "Pizza"? If we did, brands like Dole and DiGiorno would have wasted millions trying to get you hooked on their products.

So what can you do? Well, I supposed I could go all 'crusader' on you and preach to only support local restaurants and diners and to steer clear of the chains and fast food joints, but that's not realistic, and even local restaurants can fall short when it comes to wine list construction. My greatest suggestion is for you to ask questions. Ask your server for recommendations, ask them to tell you about the wine. Or tell them what you like, what producer, grape, region or style. Something like "I like Chardonnay but I prefer clean, crisp, refreshing Chards to the big, buttery and rich style." This will help send a message that people care about what they are drinking.

Is the restaurant going to change their wine list the next day? No. But it will assist in persuading restaurants to update their wine lists. After all, their primary focus is catering to the consumer. I mean, if we can get Walmart to carry an organic food line and milk made from cow's that aren't treated with artificial growth hormones we can do anything. Trends are set by the consumer, adaptation is a key component to business success.

Any good corporate executive knows when to change directions in order to stay ahead or get on top. There are over 200,000 full-service restaurants in the United States and over 250,000 limited-service fast food restaurants. Together their total annual sales exceed $550 billion. Remember, we are the consumer, they are the supplier, we don't have to patronize their establishment, we can spend our money elsewhere. As you can see, there is plenty of competition. Perhaps we will take our business to a different place, a place where our voice is heard and they serve good wine:)

Thanks as always for reading and make sure to check out the Cru Wine TV split on German Rieslings at

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