Disenfranchised

A new proposal for a building on the harbour. Image courtesy the City of St. John's.

We’re creative enough to avoid franchise businesses, says Taryn Sheppard.

A new proposal was recently submitted to the city for a two-restaurant building next to The Keg on the waterfront. The developers are attempting to get franchise licenses for the new restaurants and there is a possibility for one to be a local business, failing acquisition of the franchise license.

Boston Pizza, The Keg, Montana’s, Don Cherry’s—we’ve seen these hugely popular franchise restaurants pop up all around the city, offering a generally reliable product. Indeed, I’m sure there are a lot of people who would be happy to see two more sit-down chain restaurants gracing the waterfront with their semi-glamorous presence, especially the people fed up with waiting an hour for a table at The Keg. In the future, they might be able to hop down the street to Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Hooters, or whatever chain is targeted for this new development.

Myself, I am generally grossed out by this idea, for aesthetic reasons, and out of concern for the local economy. One reader’s comment at The Telegram brought up another aspect of chain restaurants that hadn’t occurred to me before: This reader’s point was that, given the franchises’ tight control over the menus and even the ingredients, the creative expression of the chef is greatly diminished, maybe even to the point of being non-existent. The comment went on to say that there are a number of extremely talented chefs in our city, and they need venues to work in, free of creative limitations. Franchise menus are like paint-by-numbers—you might end up with a recognizable painting, but a large amount of the effort and creativity needed to produce the painting was negated. It could have been painted by a robot.

When it comes to the buildings these franchises occupy, it’s a similar situation. Franchise owners usually need an architect to help them build their restaurant, but only for technical matters. There are almost always strict guidelines and company standards to align with. Much like the chef, the local architect will only be assembling the imported, predetermined ingredients. In practice, these jobs are just known as ‘bread and butter.’ The preliminary rendering put forth by developers for this proposal is at first glance conservative and non-controversial, generic and adaptable. But, no doubt once the chain restaurant is built, every aspect will be identifiable as Global Brand X, down to the last wall sconce.

Have local businesspeople not proven their ability to produce successful, thriving and busy mid-to-high end restaurants? Moreover, haven’t they proven their concern for local architectural distinction? If the answer is yes, then why is such a prominent location being given over to development that would make our waterfront indistinguishable—taste-wise, and building-wise—from, say, Niagara Falls? Sure, if we didn’t have the creative capacity in our local population to come up with a great restaurant, then I could understand, but that’s certainly not the case. Let’s not underestimate the ability of local restauranteurs and local designers.

13 comments

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21 July 2009

  1. Miss M · July 21, 2009

    Taryn Sheppard, you hit the nail on the head !

  2. Kieran · July 21, 2009

    What seems to always be forgotten is that there is a large chunk of the population that simply does not want to be adventurous and try out all the locally owned restaurants around town. Many people find comfort in going out and knowing exactly what to expect. There’s nothing wrong with that. So in fact, the presence of a franchise serves to BRING OTHER PEOPLE into the downtown core who would otherwise not go. Boston Pizza and the Press & Bean are not competing for the same market.

    I’m not sure how the construction of a multi-million dollar building which will provide employment for dozens of construction workers, hundreds of of others within the restaurants, and revenue for the local company which invested in it is bad for the economy.

    There is also a problem with the anecdotal assertion that there is a large number of extremely talented chefs in this city who need a proper venue. If that is indeed the case, (a) the presence of a new restaurant they’re not interested in does not alter the status quo, and (b) it’s up to them and nobody else to create their own restaurant based on their skills.

    With regards to aesthetic concerns, this looks to be a fairly attractive building. Not every building in downtown St. John’s should look like it’s from the 19th century. Forward progress has to be made. You have to be reasonable about picking and choosing what is acceptable and what is not. Bulldozing a historic block to put up a giant tower in the middle of downtown? Probably bad. Developing ugly property not in use in a way which adds economic and aesthetic value to an area? Come on.

  3. Anonymous · July 21, 2009

    You’re right, we have a lot of excellent, thriving, unique independent restaurants in this city. Personally I enjoy eating at those places as well as our fabulous chain restaurants like The Keg. I’m glad that I live in a city where I have that sort of variety, and I wouldn’t want to be deprived of it because a small segment of the population finds any type of chain restaurant to be distasteful. I also think that The Keg is a very nice looking building that adds a bit of class to our waterfront, and hopefully the new building will do the same.

    As for the local economy; While The Keg and the new restaurants going up may be franchises, the guys who will own and operate these particular locations are local businesspeople who will be hiring a lot of local employees. Not to mention all of the local companies, construction workers, tradespeople who will be involved in building and maintaining these buildings. I don’t understand your concerns about the local economy here.

    Basically my point is that the independent restaurant scene doesn’t seem to be hurting at all. There’s no reason why local independent restaurants cant coexist with locally owned and operated chain restaurants. And all of these places contribute positively to the local economy.

  4. Penny F. · July 21, 2009

    I seem to be missing the validity of the point that is trying to be made here. Yes, Newfoundland restauranteurs and designers are creative, there is no doubt in that, but to argue against an establishment because a local company would not have full creative license is nonsense.
    For one, the menus at such places allow those who could not afford an education at a culinary school to start working in the industry and also gives them the opportunity to advance through the ranks of the kitchen into better paying jobs…jobs that they would not get if the franchise did not exist.
    As for building design, they are not straight out cookie cutter. If you travel through any city in Canada, you would notice that Franchises such as the Keg are in fact not the same in every city. Each one has it’s own distinct appearance that fits into the local culture. It is part of their marketing mix.
    What is missing here is the bottom line. It takes money to build a restaurant and building one from scratch is enormously expensive. It is also an expense that banks are unwilling to take on, unless, of course, it is a proven restaurant chain that has financials to back it up. The location alone would not allow for a brand new local restaurant to be able to afford to operate. In reality it takes at least two years, usually more, for a new restaurant to break even and another year or two for it to start making money.
    A local established restaurant could attempt to make the move to this location if it had the client base to support such an expansion, like the Gypsy Tea Room did in recent years, but even then they would have to weigh the extra cost of the location and the cost of the move against whatever potential increase in sales that could be gained.
    Franchises offer the people of Newfoundland two things over brand new restaurants: guaranteed positions that are likely to be available to them for as long as they want them, and an experience that has been proven successful.

  5. Thrash · July 21, 2009

    I’d rather see a nice public area with small shops and cafes…which is what the failed kiosks area was supposed to be.

  6. Anonymouse · July 21, 2009

    Honestly, sometimes i’d like to grab a junior chicken without having to go all the way to Kenmount road.

    Heresy, yes, I know.

  7. Thrash · July 21, 2009

    I agree. There used to be fast food joints mixed in downtown (hell, Atlantic Place was a mall with a food court) and it worked quite well before downtown tried to be highbrow.

  8. trollberone · July 21, 2009

    It doesn’t matter if it’s a hooters or a aluminum factory or a child slave auction house, as long as it’s good for the economy right b’ys?

  9. Anonymous · July 21, 2009

    ^No one was necessarily saying that. However the writer of this article was suggesting that another chain restaurant would actually hurt the economy, and there is clearly no reason to believe that.

    If the independent restaurant scene is as thriving and creative as Taryn Sheppard claims (and I believe that it is) I think they should be able to thrive without heavy-handed regulations dictating who can and cannot do business in downtown St. John’s. To suggest otherwise shows a lack of confidence in our local talent. Personally I think that many of our independent restaurants are good enough to stand their ground against franchise competition without any regulatory interference.

  10. Jon Kioti · July 21, 2009

    I can see two sides to the story. I believe both can co-exist.

    Some business people and the patrons want the “proven” brands that chain restaurants give you. For instance, I’d like to see an Olive Garden here, somewhere. A franchise takes a lot of the guesswork out of running a business, and you can base your investment on a proven concept, more of less.

    However, there are some franchises which are for too restrictive in their operation, and they do little for the local owners and economy. One breakfast place here does not allow any local purchasing of ingredients, and the poor quality of the meals reflects that. Two more chain restaurants like that would do nothing for the local owners or the patrons, and hopefully we’ll avoid that with this location.

    Hopefully what will come about is something that compliments the area in appearance, taste, and enjoyment.

  11. odderin · July 21, 2009

    The trouble with franchises is that they unilaterally funnel money OUT of the province. There’s job creation…. mostly low-paying and short term. I’m not against a bit of fast food downtown so long as things stay mixed up and there’s choice, but I really really hope the locals stay in the mix. Nfld deserves a bit of an economy in its own control too.

    For discussion’s sake, here’s some questions:
    -Subjects of gentrification vs. not seem to be mixed up in this discussion over local vs. franchised… why do we hold the assumptions we do? Why is ‘franchised’ considered more accessible by some, and ‘adding a touch of class’ by others? Why is local seen as ‘high brow’ by some, and ‘low class’ by others? Aren’t there many cases where either are true? What I’m asking is (to other readers, for the sake of a bit of fun), what are your assumptions and how do they color your opinion?