The Evil That Is Panera
Why Adam Smith's Invisible Hand Reaches For Lousy Chow
A free market thrives on the equilibrium between consumer demand for high quality/low prices and business' profit motive. This symbiosis assures rich choices for consumers and profits for worthy companies. Things generally improve under such a system; wealth is created as consumers enjoy an exciting marketplace where firms compete to serve them better and cheaper. But the system has been hacked and the equilibrium lost.
Over the past century, marketers have learned to psychologically manipulate consumers into buying not on the basis of quality but in response to the specialized form of hypnosis known as branding. The human psyche has been hacked to the point where masses can be persuaded to gladly embrace poor-value, low-quality products. The plethora of choices has shriveled, value declines as prices rise, and any number of realms are getting worse, not better.
Most consumers have not only stopped demanding quality, but quality has, in many cases, become entirely irrelevant. For example, millions have an emotional bond with Budweiser that has nothing whatever to do with its flavor.
I know Bud drinkers who, served great lasagna, will shut their eyes and pound the tabletop with happiness, then return to their insipid suds as dutifully and unthinkingly as they'd tie their shoes or draw a bath. They're not dead-palated morons, they appreciate good things when they blunder upon them. If forced to evaluate on strict terms, they'd admit their favorite beer is not particularly delicious. But they don't stop to think about it, because quality has nothing to do with their purchasing decision. They buy Bud because of how the brand (not the actual product) makes them feel about themselves. It's about everything but beer. The preference of Bud loyalists stems from the insidious power of post-hypnotic suggestion continuously reinforced through keenly targeted marketing. (it's interesting to consider that it's explicitly illegal to hypnotize over broadcast media.)
With the traditional equilibrium of the free market tipped and consumer savvy trumped, the masses increasingly consume in lockstep and enjoy, in many realms, fewer and fewer choices of lower and lower quality. Free market economics suggest that this creates opportunity for higher quality, higher value alternatives. But free market economics did not anticipate the power of mass marketing to suppress consumers' natural tendency to seek better alternatives - that is, their chowhoundish propensities.
As a result, chains have come to monopolize an ever-growing slice of the pie. The restaurant realm is actually less sewn up than many others; it's home to some of the highest-profile chains, yet there's still a culture of independent operators (existing mostly in unconquered market niches). But few realize how close the chains are to pushing out those independents. The restaurant world can (and, alas, will) come to look more like bookstores, where huge players have locked up the action and mom-n-pop independents have little chance. It seems unthinkable, but who, thirty years ago, could have anticipated the demise of independent booksellers?
Look at the landscape. Home Depot has killed the hardware stores, Staples has killed the stationers, and Walmart has killed entire downtowns. And so on. It's not quite as destructive as it sounds, however. There are benefits to this succession. The majority of hardware store were not stocked-to-the-rafters warm places where friendly employees offered expert advice and personal attention. Most retailers are pretty lousy, and in many cases chains are a vast improvement. The problem is babies lost with bath water. Terrific businesses have been crushed (in fact, many chains specifically target the best independents), and there's no such thing as a terrific (or even distinctive) Home Depot or Walmart. Chains, as publicly-owned entities obliged to grow endlessly to increase shareholder value, have no concept of restraint. The bath water, the babies, the talcum powder, towels and bathroom fixtures all are relentlessly sucked down the drain. When chains dominate a sector, they are increasingly able to make a clean sweep of it, which means fewer choices and lower quality/value.
Restaurants are a last bastion of small business, but they're also much more than that. In our present day, they are where the action is, culturally. A hundred years ago, the creative zeitgeist revolved around absinthe-swilling artists and philosophers in Parisian cafes. Fifty years ago, the jazz scene flowered with human creative spirit. Thirty years ago, film was a nexus. Now the zeitgeist is in arepas and sushi - and any other comestible you could imagine. That's where it's exciting right now. What other realm of American culture brims so copiously with inspiration? There are brilliant individuals working in many realms, but zeitgeist involves a critical mass of concurrent brilliance, and no other realm can compete with the panoply of treasure to be found in today's (independent) restaurant scene.
But the zeitgeist may not last much longer. The end game is upon us. Restaurateurs, who have always survived by a mere thread, face increasing pressure from big business and its unbeatable mass marketing. Amply-marketed bad restaurants can be extraordinarily successful. We can't change that. All we can hope for is at least some means of support for those who cook with heart and soul. Otherwise, their number will shrink drastically.
The corporate lock-up of restaurants began decades ago when the lower echelon eateries - the hotdog stands, automats, cafeterias, carts, etc. - were squashed or subsumed by chain behemoths. There are scattered holdouts, but they're fading. Again, McDonald's, KFC, etc. don't aim to be mere options; their mandate is to fill all space at this price point.
The mid-level is not as locked up, though an increasing number of chains (Olive Garden, et al) have successfully targeted mid-priced diners. Just as lower priced fast food brands co-opted the roadside stand model to swallow that market, the mid-level places co-opt the look and feel of "nice" places. They're designed to seamlessly wean consumers from those cranky, unpredictable independent operations.
The upper-level assault, which is just starting to reveal itself, seems to involve spinning brand webs around hyped star chefs, using their premium images to assure upscale patrons of meals of sufficiently high prestige (most high-end spots - including the genuinely terrific ones - are patronized for their prestige). Figures like Bobby Flay and Emeril are the latter-day upscale analogs of Ronald McDonald; stylized faces slapped upon brands. A bit further up the price ladder, Wolfgang Puck long ago morphed into a brand, and high-end chefs nationwide are lining up to be similarly transformed into front men for mass market juggernauts (notice the swarm of high-end restaurants launching spin-offs; it's a branding land grab). The burgers-and-fries model can scale to foie gras and champagne with a bit of tinkering and window dressing.
Understand, please that I'm not anti-corporate. I'm just anti-sucking. If Pizza Hut made pizza to rival Difara's (a miraculous pizza temple in Brooklyn), I'd sing their praises. My life would be vastly better. Imagine if one could visit any of the jillion chain outlets to have palate delighted and soul inspired. Heaven! But deliciousness stems from the touch of proud, talented individuals investing care. Chains, by contrast, hew to an industrial model based on the elimination of individual care and pride. There's nobody home, just drones following formulas, like a scene out of Brave New Kitchen. (Yes, the French model is also built on assembly line preparation - but there's no comparison between a creative collaboration of highly-trained careerists and the rote labors of mindless unskilled can-opening, button-pushing cogs.) Relying upon the fleeting magic of individual human touch and care in a 200 (or 20,000) outlet chain would ensure hugely inconsistent results.
And, of course, inconsistency is the enemy - and not just for chains. A great many consumers hate inconsistency as much as the Chicken McNuggets product manager does. Most folks prefer a miserable shrimp scampi from Red Lobster to facing the nervous prospect of entering an unfamiliar restaurant environment and risking unpredictable results. People follow a script, and they fear having to ad lib. Chains assure them of an experience guaranteed to remain firmly on the tracks *.
Thus consumers are wheedled, via their fears and prejudices, into selling themselves short with unending compromise. Human beings have infinite potential for spontaneity, yet can be lulled into stupor of safety. The cynics who choreograph this mass lulling are bad people. They foster inhumanity to make a buck.
Chowhound.com is intended as a red pill that can awaken consumers to their virtual reality prisons of manipulation and make them realize that they needn't settle at every turn - that deliciousness can be an everyday thing and that the greatest joy stems from spontaneity. A contagious passion encourages treasure hunting for deeper satisfaction. The more awakened consumers there are, the more incentive there'll be for entrepreneurs to open great places rather than simply buy into a Dunkin Donuts franchise.
Those unaffiliated few who are neither McDonaldites nor Burger Kingers, who aren't captivated by mid-level chains and aren't hype-enslaved foodies atwitter over the latest hyped star chef, are increasingly attractive to the business interests aiming to lock up the restaurant sector. We represent an uncaptured market ripe for exploitation. Just as low, mid, and high-priced diners must be matched to their branded homes, so must there be homes for us, the irreverent, hype-averse brand-homeless.
And, indeed, we are being targeted. Big business has finally turned their attention to chowhounds, and, humiliatingly, are hooking us and drawing us in with new shadings of the same branding tricks we'd all previously clucked our tongues at.
When I first passed a Panera, the newish bakery/cafe chain, my "looks good" notification system engaged. I didn't realize they were a chain, they just looked like a sleeky happening bakery. I went in, and felt at home. I studied the menu, and was excited. The illusion only began to shatter when I closely studied their products. Each item I examined was revealed as the fake crap it was. Yet other items, peripheral to my visual field, all intrigued and enticed. My buttons were being pushed with disquieting skill.
Like a bee in a box of mirrors, I was confused and navigated poorly. My ordermanship, usually a dependable faculty, bogged down in conflicting impressions: 1. I'm missing lots of good stuff (i.e. everything in peripheral vision), and 2. everything I've ordered from this extremely attractive, smart, engaging server seems sure to suck.
The server showed real food-loving passion when she told me I'd made smart choices. "The pineapple upside-down tart is one of my favorite things here; you should come back and try them in the mornings when they're fresh from the ovens!" she enthused, sounding like a real chowhound. Yes, I DO want to try that sometime! Thank you, attractive chowhoundish server, for sharing this enticing bit of insider information with me!
But no. The pineapple upside down tart - like everything I've tried from Panera - was horrid. It wasn't just tasteless and mediocre and wrong and offensive. It created rippling spiritual and physical aftershocks. Eating it left me feeling deeply vacant, the way a burger and fries at McDonald's does (only worse, because one steels oneself for the "great taste" of McDonald's). And it upset my stomach. My mother - who has infallible taste in baked goods - proclaimed it, with a look of sour and confused displeasure, as "gooey."
Panera's products are remarkable, though, in that they've developed an entirely new style of sucking. Their products don't suck in any of the usual ways; they're a fresh take on suckiness built from scratch. Since nothing sucks familiarly, Panera's stuff can fool you at first if you don't pay close attention.
Here's the sick part: every time I pass a Panera's, my "looks good" chow-dar still perqs up...until my eyes focus. For a pre-conscious moment, my interest is recurrently stirred with terrifying precision.
Now here's the really sick part. Some otherwise discerning people like Panera. Not because they're dolts, but because they're slightly more hypnotizable. All the underlying indicators and subliminal manipulations carry them smoothly and unconsciously through the actual taste-and-discern part of the deal, just as the thin layer of oil and dirt and dead skin on the soles of the feet allow a person to take a few steps over hot coals. The taste, after all, isn't the only thing. In fact, it doesn't truly matter all that much. It's whether the brand makes you feel at home. Make that a Bud Lite, please...
The more otherwise discerning people drink the Kool Aid, the more they'll let go of their inclination to seek out and support great places. Who could blame them? Resistance is hard work - like swimming upstream - and capitulation so temptingly easy. The marketing sirens sing tunes tailored to the ears of your demographic group - and we are, all of us, members of demographic groups. Even, it pains me to admit, you and I. Every other segment of society has been locked into happy brand hypnosis. We, the hold-outs, self-identify as quality-conscious. And so we're being given McQuality. Not real quality, of course, but drek that looks like quality, feels like quality, BUYS like quality. Our deepest yearnings constitute just another niche to be accommodated via a small tweak of the standard formula. We are just a paler shade of lemming.
The future is dire. Our numbers will dwindle as many of our erstwhile savvy compatriots settle into soft womb-like brands concocted for them. And non-hounds who previously might have caught the chowhounding bug after stumbling upon hyperdeliciousness may stumble, instead, upon Panera, mistake it for the sort of place we dig, and understandably conclude that the only difference between "good" food and the standard mass market fare is a few extra bucks and a bit of pretension. Makes us look silly. Undermines the message.
Or, worse, they'll love Panera and think they've joined the tribe. I wince at the prospect of hearing someone gush "I never understood why you make such a big deal about food, but I found this great chowhoundish bakery that makes these really moist pineapple upside-down pastries...."
Whoever runs Panera understands us, perhaps is one of us. S/he deeply understands our motivation. I have to believe we can't all be manipulated, but harm will be done. And it's awful, because those of us who care about genuine quality support and advocate the good guys. If the more hypnotizable among us are captured, those good guys - holdouts who cook with love and talent and who are just barely hanging on as is - will lose their foothold.
And they need us. There must be MORE of us, not less. Hypnotizing the mainstream (never particularly clear-eyed to begin with) is a minor sin. But to hypnotize those few who remain defiantly awake - to snuff a last vestige of consumer free will - is pure evil.
Food Emporium (a NYC supermarket chain) was an early harbinger of all this. They are unexceptional upper-midlevel groceries, but with really good lighting. And their advertising jingle enraged me by mocking my worldview:
"Someone made a store just for me
Someone's got my kind of quality
Someone got the message that people like things better
Even when they're shopping for
The simple things."
Starbucks was another pioneering effort to co-opt the unco-optable. And there will be more, including some more insidious than Panera and more ubiquitous than Starbucks. We should protest in front of these places. Form blockades with stacks of Difara's pizzas, and force all customers to take a bite and reawaken to what food could be - SHOULD be!
The all-knowing eye of Mordor has turned in our direction. We must do what we can to support the good guys, spread the word, and, most of all, enjoy the fleeting zeitgeist. This flowering of deliciousness is by no means an enduring phenomenon.
* -- our aversion to spontaneity is hardwired when it comes to food. An innate suspiciousness of victuals helped our species survive. Aversion to unfamiliar, uncertain eating experiences and attraction to more familiar ones are highly adaptive traits - chowhoundish cavemen with an inclination to gobble random mushrooms were unlikely to pass on their genes.
Walking into a McDonald's for an egg mcmuffin offers the same primal reassurance that our forebears felt entering the tribal cave and smelling the traditional ox bladder stew. When McDonald's advertises "The Great Taste", they don't mean a literally great taste. They mean the taste you know; the taste that feels like home. In the end, it's always about the ox bladders.