The first restaurant chain in the US, the late-19th-century Harvey House, popped up in train stations and followed the rapid growth of rail travel. It disappeared decades ago, but the project of connecting huge swaths of land with the promise of culinary sameness lives on. In a country that currently seems fractured and exhausted by its own divisions (at least from across the Canadian border, where I live), are chains a unifying force, a common denominator — or yet another arena in which cultural and political tensions play out?
Here are some of my favorite reads on America’s restaurant chains, from the generically upscale to the proudly down-home. They cover politics, economics, regional identity, and even (surprise!) food.
1. “Giving Thanks at Cracker Barrel.” (Cari Wade Gervin, Eater, November 19, 2014)
My first foray into the strange, Americana-on-steroids world of Cracker Barrel came during a long, boring drive from St. Louis to Chicago; I left with many unanswered questions (are these antiques real? Why is a single diner given so much bread?). Gervin’s personal essay recounts the origins of her family’s annual visit to Cracker Barrel for Thanksgiving dinner — and tries to make sense of the chain’s manufactured hominess along the way.
(This piece is part of Eater’s Life in Chains series — other highlights include Elisabeth Fairfield Stokes on the allure of McDonald’s in Alaska and Sara Benincasa on death and TGI Friday’s.)
2. “The Death of Flair.” (Lisa Hix, Collectors Weekly, August 11, 2016)
As it turns out, the antiques at Cracker Barrel are indeed real. They’re the culmination of a trend that started decades earlier at TGI Friday’s, where the walls were kept cluttered to fuel flirty conversations during the chain’s heyday as a singles’ mecca. “I put big things in too small of a space, little things in too big a space. I wanted people to feel like they were seeing something they’d never seen before every time they came to the restaurant,” says Dan Scoggin, the chain’s founder. Hix looks at chain restaurants as spaces that reflect the evolution of mores and aesthetics — and traces the fate of the discarded knickknacks once restaurants decide to follow more minimalist trends.
3. “The KFC Chicken Sandwich that Ate Pakistan.” (Saba Imtiaz, Roads and Kingdoms, April 21, 2016)
Fried chicken in general, and the Colonel Sanders variety in particular, is embedded in multiple local — and very American — histories of race, class struggle, and cultural appropriation. So what happens when you drop KFC in the heart of an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city? Saba Imtiaz follows the story of an unlikely object of capitalist longing: the Zinger, a sandwich that hadn’t even been tested in the US until earlier this year, and that has become “a symbol of urban aspirations and dreams, a burger that sustains a city constantly in flux.”
4.”Big Med.” (Atul Gawande, The New Yorker, August 13, 2012)
I think of the Cheesecake Factory as an embarrassment: both because of the food it serves, and (mostly) because of how much I actually love going there. (It’s been more than five years: we were expecting, shopping for a stroller in a Seattle suburb, and decided to bid adieu to any and all traces of hipness in one gazillion-calorie seating). Yet the chain’s innovative processes and success at scaling up quality control have inspired professionals in other fields, like medicine. Here, Gawande wonders how hospitals might become more efficient and adaptable if they learned from mega-kitchens that churn out hundreds of different items every day, flawlessly.
5. “Twilight of the Pizza Barons.” (Bryan Gruley, Bloomberg, July 3, 2014)
Pizza in the US conjures up images of Italian-American communities in places like Providence and New Haven, or of neo-artisanal varieties in Brooklyn or Berkeley. Yet two of the top-three pizza chains in America started in Detroit. Gruley profiles Tom Monaghan and Mike Ilitch, the billionaire founders of Domino’s and Little Caesars, respectively, and tells a tale of an economically struggling city being shaped by pie-generated fortunes.
6. “What It’s Like to Work at the Waffle House for 24 Hours Straight.” (Andrew Knowlton, Bon Appetit, February 17, 2015)
Knowlton, a born-and-bred Georgian, returns to Atlanta for a Herculean undertaking: manning the waffle station for an entire day at a busy Waffle House location. What ensues is a hazy gonzo account full of mayhem, grease, and Southern drawls. As he aptly reasons, “Let’s be honest: If the French Laundry were open 24 hours a day, sketchy things would happen there too.”
(For more on the beloved chain, read Jessica Contrera’s tribute to an old Waffle House Location in Bloomington, Indiana, on the eve of its demolition.)