Although the seeds for this blog were planted early in my life by one too many trips to the Smithsonian or one too many National Geographics, they really started to take root after I graduated from college. I went back to work at a restaurant in Myrtle Beach, SC, which I had worked at the previous two summers. The restaurant was called Shenanigans, and while the name did not help the cause, it was one of the best steakhouses in the south. They served hand-cut, USDA Prime beef – aged, seasoned and cooked to perfection. It would be many years later, in Argentina, that I ate steak that compared. Almost 20 years later, I have yet to have prime rib which could stack up. The steaks came complete with a large and beautiful salad, a heaping side dish and hot fresh bread. The only steaks which cost over $20 (including the salad and side) were the filet mignon and a 32 ounce (2 pound!) prime rib, and those just barely. I loved working there because every time I walked up to the table to ask how everything was, I was certain it was going to be great. In the back of my mind, I can still taste that prime rib, and every time I drive by that building, even now, I feel sad that it is gone.
So what happened to it? Although the name and location weren’t the best, the death toll came when Outback Steakhouse opened a few miles up the road. I would actually lie awake at night and think about it – why would people want to save three or four dollars to eat a frozen, average steak with a soggy salty potato? And the answer I kept coming back to was that at Outback, you knew what you were going to get, even if it was only average. Going somewhere local could be great or could be terrible, but the chain alternative provided dependable mediocrity.
From that time forward, I found myself more and more attracted to the local option. To giving something a shot for better or for worse. To taking the chance that a local owner cared more about my satisfaction than a corporate cost-cutter did. I found I was very rarely disappointed. But I also watched as the country became more and more strip-mallified. I watched downtowns fade one store at a time while shopping centers sprung up in every suburb. I watched as local stores and motels and restaurants across the country were shuttered forever to make way for Wal-Marts and Comfort Inns and TGIFridays. Bartenders and waitresses had their personalities stripped away to make way for scripted service. And it wasn’t just happening in the big cities, the small towns began to fade as well. The country stopped looking like America, and started looking like Generica. I know this started happening long before I started to see it, but it was when it happened on a personal scale that I really started to understand it.
I watched this happen across the country during my years as a tour guide. I also watched with a great deal of respect and admiration as some communities fought to keep their local character and their local businesses open. But there seemed to be far more like Charleston WV and far less like Charleston SC every year. It boggled my mind as I watched people filling up a Pizza Hut while the far better local pizza restaurant a block over went under. Taco Bell thrives while Taqueria Mexicana sits empty. It’s hard to see somewhere once so diverse start to homogenize on such a grand scale.
More recently, though, I have seen a reversal start to take root. I have seen chains closing down or going bankrupt while tiny local shops are taking hold. I attribute this to several factors. First, many of the chain locations have started to show their age and that dependable mediocrity has turned less dependable and often less than mediocre. It is certainly harder to get a poorly paid manager to care more than a fully invested owner. Cost-cutting has weakened quality control across the board. The chains focused on expansion and more expansion, spending profits on growth instead of putting money away for maintenance and upgrades of their current locations. A hotel bed can only last so long.
Second, many places seem to have become just too underwhelming and bland. I recently went into an Applebee’s for the first time in a long time. Their menu was a hodgepodge of different American cuisines – “Cajun” and “Southwest” and “New England” dotted the menu creating a food style I think of as “genericana cuisine”. I wonder if whoever is creating these menu items has ever been to these places and actually tasted the food there because if they had, they would see that their poor imitations are really just that. And I find that really disappointing. They use peoples’ sense memories of a place, whether real or imagined, to sell their crappy food. And when it is inevitably bland and boring, it will leave people with a bad taste in their mouth for a place and a cuisine which they may be reluctant to try again. I would hate for someone to visit New Orleans and not sample the local food because they once had “Bourbon Street Chicken” at Applebee’s and didn’t like it very much, so they order a burger instead. They would be missing out on one of the world’s great food cities. Even at breakfast, which is pretty hard to screw up, the Denny’s of the world are cranking out tasteless, boring food. I used to like Denny’s, but now I’d rather go hungry.
The third and most important game changer has been the influence of the internet. Websites like TripAdvisor and Yelp! and, on a more local level, bloggers, have given consumers a way to gauge a business before spending their money. This has allowed those mom and pops who weathered the storm to find new clientele through positive reviews. These reviews can be better advertising than the best ad campaign. It has also provided an avenue for new local businesses to spring up. Across the country, boutique hotels and local restaurants are taking hold not just on the upper end of the income spectrum, but more and more in the mid-level range as well. Craft breweries, butcher shops, ice cream parlors and any number of locally owned businesses are popping up every day. I find this to be very positive and hope this trend continues. We are starting to understand the difference.
Now if we could only get the population to start shifting back away from the cities and re-populate the middle of the country, I think we would find ourselves, as a country, happier and healthier. But this takes this trend to a new level and would require specialized “boutique factories” to bring jobs to these cities, and giving small farmers a chance against factory farmers. Too often we have let ourselves think “bigger is better”, and we need to start thinking smaller can mean higher quality which will probably mean better. Go and find something you have in your house that your grandparents owned. How does the quality of that item compare to something similar you bought recently? Will your item last long enough for your grandkids to own it? And then keep in mind that if your grandparents were like mine were, they fell in a similar or lower income bracket than you do. But things were made to last, they were made in small batches with better materials because people cared more. People cared that their product would last you as long as possible, not just long enough to get through the warranty. Do you remember the Maytag repairman? That is the perfect symbol of an era now past. Now, everything from refrigerators to cars to computers to watches aren’t made to last longer than five or ten years. Why are we going backwards and why aren’t we outraged by it? This isn’t to say that quality products don’t still exist. But Rolexes are out of most of our price ranges. One product which always comes to mind, made right here in America, is the Zippo lighter. These are guaranteed for the lifetime of the lighter, not the lifetime of the owner. If your grandfather’s Zippo stops working, they will fix or replace it for free. It’s a simple product, well designed and built to last forever. For most of my life, I’ve driven a 1968 Ford Mustang. Can you even imagine a 2013 model car being on the road in the 2050’s? That’s laughable, but why? Do you remember when you opened a package of T-shirts and it said “inspected by inspector #12”? When was the last time you saw that? I’m just sayin’…
So I am off to visit America. To document what I find and bring it to your living room in bold color. I want to find the best of what’s left from the old and the best of what’s new on the table. I want to taste dishes made from grandma’s recipe, not Corporate Mr. Boring’s recipe. I want to visit hotels and businesses and find the artists and craftsmen and -women who are keeping the old ways going. But also those who are innovating and making something new based on expertise and quality instead of nickel and dime profit. Call me old-fashioned, you won’t be the first, but I want to see these things while I still can, while they still exist, and maybe give some of them some exposure to keep them going. Call me sentimental or foolish, but I care about this country and the people in it, and I want to show people the many great things we have to offer. I have already spent more of my life travelling around this country than most people probably ever will, and I have met great people in every corner of it. But I always felt rushed – like I had other places to be (usually because I did). Now it’s time to slow down, take it easy, and really dig deep. It’s time for me to really see America, and you’re invited to come along for the ride. But just know that when given the choice, I'm choosing local!