You might expect that food columnists would be breaking out in song at the news that Friendly's, not to mention Fuddrucker's, Black Angus Steakhouse, and Chevy's Fresh Mex have all filed for bankruptcy in recent years. Some researchers have theorized that Yelp is leading diners away from chains to independent restaurants. But in his most recent column, Josh Ozersky, Time's ever-controversial food columnist, sees a darker trend in the suffering of the big chains:
The reason the chains are shrinking is that they were the great commissary of the American middle class, and the middle class is itself a besieged and crippled entity. ... The economy is hurting generally, that's true. But the QSR sector, as it's called by the industry (quick-service restaurants, or fast food to you) is doing great. And the reason it's doing great is because families that were eating fajita quesadilla platters for dinner are now eating less expensive fare like Hardee's Thickburgers instead.
Market saturation may have something to do with it, too. The number of large restaurant chains keeps growing, and that growth is not infinite. If you've spent any time talking about food with people in Midwestern suburbs, you'll hear them trading tips on new chains with the enthusiasm San Franciscans do a new Delfina spinoff or Thomas Keller's next venture. Some chains, like Bennigan's, simply go out of fashion.
But Ozersky's argument, in large part, makes sense. Many of the suffering chains are special-occasion restaurants for the people who live near them -- if not 10th-anniversary special occasion, hiring-a-babysitter special occasion. And with consumer spending going south again, everyday splurges are an easy thing to cut back.