Thursday, January 08, 2009

In Defense of Silver Spring's Chain Restaurants

I may be a lone voice here, but I feel the need to defend the existence of Silver Spring's chain restaurants.

The frequently-repeated argument that the chain restaurants on Ellsworth/Hellsworth/The Promenade have somehow done irreparable harm to the family-owned, non-chain businesses is bogus. I have posed the question before, and have to ask it again: where in Silver Spring has a chain restaurant ever directly replaced a "local" restaurant? (Bonus points for naming one that was actually worth eating at.) I can only think of cases where it was the other way around, such as Langano replacing a Jerry's Subs.

If there were no restaurants on Ellsworth before the arrival of DTSS, how could chains have replaced them? You know what restaurant I remember on Ellsworth? McDonald's. A lot of good new restaurants have opened up outside of that two-block stretch since the development was built. Olazzo, Nicaro, Ghar-e-Kebab, Ray's the Classics and Taste of Jerusalem are just a few ones I can name off the top of my head. I think it is fair to assume that some/most of these places would never had opened had the DTSS development not acted as the catalyst that started attracting more people to Silver Spring in the evenings and weekends. In addition to the new restaurants that have opened since 2003, Silver Spring stalwarts like Negril seem to be doing okay, as the Jamaican eatery expanded with a take-out-only storefront in the last year or two. Plus, it should also be mentioned that DTSS has its own non-chain restaurants, such as Ceviche and McGinty's.

If anything, the existence of DTSS's chain restaurants, while grotesque and incomprehensible to many, has in my opinion been generally positive for the restaurant scene in Silver Spring. It reminds me of the conventional wisdom that Starbucks kills off independent coffee houses, while the reality is that the chain helps independents immeasurably, having dramatically grown the market for expensive coffee drinks. Independent coffee places actually want to move in next door to Starbucks.

I also don't subscribe to the idea that people who frequent chain restaurants would be patronizing some "local" restaurant if said chain restaurant didn't exist. I doubt the clientele of the Red Lobster would be necessarily be eating at (insert name of oppressed local restaurant here) had the seafood chain not opened a location on Ellsworth. The only difference would be that those people would be driving farther to get to a different Red Lobster. You wouldn't catch me dead in the Red Lobster, but if that's your bag, enjoy. The sad truth is that these type of restaurants fill a need. There exists a certain segment of the population that WILL NOT try any unknown places, especially ones that are "ethnic", no matter how much you try to convince them. (These are generally co-workers, because let's be honest - you don't really want to be friends with people like that.) So, for business lunches to exist - and for you to get company-paid meals - you need these chain restaurants around.

From a property manager's perspective, it makes a lot more sense to lease space to a known quantity that has a history of success. While the frequently-quoted statistic that 90% of restaurants fail in the first year may be a myth, the figure is still close to 60%. It doesn't do anyone any good to have constant turnover and empty storefronts, especially if the goal was to attract customers to a previously-dead area, such as Ellsworth Drive.

Finally, just because a restaurant is not a chain doesn't mean it's actually any good - and that chains are bad by default. At least chains have minimum quality standards that they are required to meet and are held accountable by the corporate parent. I've had plenty of terrible experiences in some of Silver Spring's precious local restaurants, many of which I no longer frequent. I personally don't frequently eat at the chain restaurants in Silver Spring, but I don't mind occasionally getting takeout from places like Chipotle or Baja Fresh when it's convenient.

If you don't like the chain restaurants, don't eat at them. Just think of them a necessary evil. I don't know where in the western world these days you will find a urban area that doesn't have its share of chain restaurants. New York, London, take your pick. I don't know why Silver Spring always seems to bear the brunt of chain hatred in the DC metro area, because other places surely have their share. Check out Dupont Circle (just one example), where you will find Potbelly, Chipotle, Five Guys, Cosi, and Subway on a single block.



30 comments:

Springvale Roader said...

I agree. I'm not big on most of the chains, but they serve a certain population, and I actually like a few, like Chipotles and Baja Fresh -- not least because I do not actually have to eat my food inside of them.

I remember hearing that in the beginning of DTSS' revival, the county planners sought chains like Red Lobster because independent restaurants were not willing to be pioneers, whereas Red Lobster and it's ilk could and would and in fact did, thereby paving the way for other restaurants -- as Sligo noted.

True, it's somewhat sad that visitors to DTSS from East-West Highway or 16th Street see the Red Lobster as their welcoming landmark (Welcome to Tackyville!), but give them a few more seconds and there in all its glory is the Silver Theater's marquee; there are few neighborhoods in the D.C. metro area with such a classy destination. I'm proud of DTSS, even if it does have too many bad chain restaurants and far too few bars.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, Sligo. No argument here. I don't eat at Red Lobster, but I also don't feel like I need to hate on people who do. What about Asian Bistro? That's not a chain. Austin Grill is a local chain. Does that make it horrible?

Corona said...

My long-standing personal stance is that I'm willing to try anything edible once. If the place is good and the food is good, I'll support it, if its not, I'll take my business elsewhere. Chain or local, the quality is what matters to me.

Sometimes a man is just going to have a craving for endless shrimp, a Chipotle Burrito, or a Quarter Pounder. When that craving exists, said man is going to fullfil that craving, be it in his backyard or in a nearby area.

Personal preference of a chain for a type of food does not mean that someone wishes all local businesses to die, it just means someone may prefer something over something else. Some people just happen to like Macaroni Grill more than Olazzo. I'm not one of them. Some people happen to like Austin Grill more than Tijuana's. I'm not one of them. Some people do happen to enjoy a Fudruckers burger more than a burger from a local resturant - I'm one of them.

I think the problem is more than when people think Silver Spring, they think of the one outdoor street mall that does have its fair share of chains. There's so much more to Silver Spring than Elsworth Dr, and the powers-that-be need to work to help jazz up and better advertise the locals outside of Ellsworth.

The other problem is that some of the true chains in SS happen to be in the most visible places. Red Lobster, Potbellys, and Starbucks are in some of the primest locations in the prime location.

silver spring penguin said...

Corona said: "There's so much more to Silver Spring than Elsworth Dr, and the powers-that-be need to work to help jazz up and better advertise the locals outside of Ellsworth."

The Buy Local Silver Spring initiative is trying to boost visibility for locally owned businesses through its recently published guide. About 200 retailers are listed.

You can snag a PDF copy here.

(Disclaimer: The Penguin is the guide's online-media partner.)

Dan Reed said...

Remember, chains also have Terrible Economic Consequences and Treat Their Workers Poorly, regardless of if they're just glad to have a job. If you ever ask someone [usually of the liberal-hipster contingent, perhaps a resident of the District, or Takoma Park, or even - gasp! - an ungrateful Silver Springer] who says these things to elaborate further, they cannot and will not. Your manifesto (manifesto?) should be posted in the comments of every DCist/City Paper/angry rant against "Silver SprUng" blog post, for all to see and weep in their misguided attempts at seeming "enlightened."

That being said, we still have a long way to becoming a [non-chain] restaurant Mecca like Bethesda or Wheaton. Lizbeth's Cafe will never pollo a la brasa me in a way that Chicken on the Run or El Pollo Rico can.

squirrelist said...

I'm really tired of hearing people complain about all the chains in DTSS. Really? How many corporate chains do we have? Macaroni Grill, Panera, Red Lobster, Noodles & Co., Starbucks, Chik Fil A, Fuddrucker's, Chipotle, Baja Fresh, Cost Ston, Potbelly... I think that's about it. About half of the restaurants in "Downtown Silver Spring" are local (or at least small, DC area chains).

The only restaurant within a block of Ellsworth I can think of that has closed down since the revitalization is Ruby Tuesday, one of the biggest chain bistros in the country.

Off Ellsworth, the only chains I can think of are a single McDonalds, one Caribou, one Starbucks, an Einstein and a few Subways, which leads me to believe that anyone who says Silver Spring is overrun with chains must have never left that one block to discover all the great places that Silver Spring has to offer. Nicaro, Olazzo, Gallery, Mayorga, Taste of Jerusalem, Pomegranate, Moorenko's, Crisfield, Lotus, Jackie's, Vicino, Oriental East, Cubano's, Mi Rancho, Tastee Diner, Ray's The Classics, Sobroso, Piratz, Da Marco, Cafe Crescent, Mandalay, Quarry House, Kefa, Addis Ababa, Highland Origin, Langano, Bombay Gaylord, Los Arrieros, La Fonda, just to name a few.

Our situation is a heck of a lot better than most places I know. As a matter of fact, I think it's comparable with downtown DC with their Ruths Chris's, California Pizza Kitchens, Chipotle's, Caribous, Potbellys and what seems to be a Starbucks on every corner.

I can understand that most of suburbia is overrun with chains (Columbia, anyone?), but like it or not, chains do have their place. Like Springvale Roader said, DTSS would not be where it is today if it were not for the chains. As a matter of fact, a certain number of chains are good for local business because they have made Silver Spring a destination.

Anonymous said...

Springvale Roader said...

True, it's somewhat sad that visitors to DTSS from East-West Highway or 16th Street see the Red Lobster as their welcoming landmark (Welcome to Tackyville!), but give them a few more seconds and there in all its glory is the Silver Theater's marquee; there are few neighborhoods in the D.C. metro area with such a classy destination. I'm proud of DTSS, even if it does have too many bad chain restaurants and far too few bars.

RE: Your biased ideas of Chain Restaurants in DTSS is considered a Paradise of the same chain Restaurants in DTDC, Arlington, Alexandria, Reston, and Springfield.....

Anonymous said...

silver spring penguin said...

Corona said: "There's so much more to Silver Spring than Elsworth Dr, and the powers-that-be need to work to help jazz up and better advertise the locals outside of Ellsworth."

The Buy Local Silver Spring initiative is trying to boost visibility for locally owned businesses through its recently published guide. About 200 retailers are listed.

You can snag a PDF copy here.

(Disclaimer: The Penguin is the guide's online-media partner.)

RE: I find it Oddly Strange that Silver Spring doesn't have any African American Owned Soul Food Restaurants..........

Anonymous said...

Dan Reed said...

Remember, chains also have Terrible Economic Consequences and Treat Their Workers Poorly, regardless of if they're just glad to have a job. If you ever ask someone [usually of the liberal-hipster contingent, perhaps a resident of the District, or Takoma Park, or even - gasp! - an ungrateful Silver Springer] who says these things to elaborate further, they cannot and will not. Your manifesto (manifesto?) should be posted in the comments of every DCist/City Paper/angry rant against "Silver SprUng" blog post, for all to see and weep in their misguided attempts at seeming "enlightened."

That being said, we still have a long way to becoming a [non-chain] restaurant Mecca like Bethesda or Wheaton. Lizbeth's Cafe will never pollo a la brasa me in a way that Chicken on the Run or El Pollo Rico can.

RE So your idea of making Silver Spring a "restaurant mecca" is to do like Takoma Park and remove All of the Chain Restaurants.

If that's your way of thinking then your just making up a wonderful recipe for Economic/Business Disaster because truth be told most people in the Washington area(and most of the US) prefer to patronize Chain Retail/Restaurant or else your little shabby place of Burtonsville and Takoma Park would be Packed with people trying patronize non-Chain Businesses that has plagued both Burtonsville and Takoma Park...........

Its a known fact that non-Chain Small Retail/Restaurant Businesses never Out-Perform National Chain Retail/Restaurant Businesses......

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Inappropriate Use of Capital Letters,

You've been whining about your no-soul-food-place conspiracy for ages and it's getting old. If you think there's such a demand, why don't you open one up your damn self?

Ben Ross said...

The proliferation of chain restaurants in new urban-style developments is promoted by the zoning ordinance.

The zoning ordinance sets minimum lot sizes for mixed use developments. This prevents a storeowner who owns his own store building (or small local landowner who rents to her) from replacing an old one-store building with a taller building with apartments above the store. To profit from the urbanization of our downtowns, the small landowner has to sell out to a big developer. The large-scale developers prefer large-scale tenants, i.e. chains.

Get rid of the minimum lot sizes for mixed-use development and it will be easier for local merchants to stay.

Bonifant more sinister than Thayer said...

Don't be a h8n on my Red Lobsta fried skrimps.

Anonymous said...

So the Shitty Paper is basically describing people who eat at the Hellsworth chains as "cretins" . Nice. I always found their holier-than-thou bleeding-heart journalism annoying (and I am neither Republican nor conservative!). Talk about being selective about their cultural relativism.

Vagrarian said...

Speaking as someone who actually works in DTSS, I've been thankful sometimes for the chains when I want to grab a quick lunch. Potbelly's is a big favorite at my office, although I now hit Sabroso a lot as well. However, when we want to take our time, we hit the buffet at Ghar-e-Kabab or one of the other locally-owned joints.

I personally don't eat at Chipotle, mainly because I became violently ill after eating at one downtown on my last date with my now-ex-boyfriend.

But when I'm out with friends for a fun time in the evenings or on weekends, it's always Ghar-e-Kabab or the Quarry House or Jackie's or someplace like that. And on the weekends, when I feel like coffee, it's always Kefa or Highland Origin, partly because I like them better than Starbucks but also because they're usually less crowded and noisy.

Springvale Roader said...

Anonymous of Jan. 8, at 11:40:

You responded to my post with this:

"RE: Your biased ideas of Chain Restaurants in DTSS is considered a Paradise of the same chain Restaurants in DTDC, Arlington, Alexandria, Reston, and Springfield....."

No offense, but I have absolutely no idea, whatsoever, of what you meant by that. What bias? What do you mean by paradise?

Based on your other posts here, I can guess at what you implied, but I'd rather let you explain in your own (non-cryptic) words.

Anonymous said...

Just, thanks.

I am a huge DTSS booster, above all, always, and it has immeasurably improved my experience living in Silver Spring, chains and all.

Terry in Silver Spring said...

I'm not certain who owns it, but I've had quite good soul food at the Brass Hen down on the bottom level of City Place. Greens, fried fish, all sorts of stuff. Actually, I don't give one fig about the ethnicity of the owner. If the food is good, bravo.

Vagrarian said...

Oh yeah, some complain about all the chains, but there's been a great spillover that's benefitted all the independently-owned local businesses. The chains proved that DTSS could support restaurants, and the new locally-owned ones have risen to give people alternatives.

I'll be the first to say sometimes a chain provides what I'm hungry for, but at the same time, I often find that what I get at independent restaurants is better than at chains. (I've eaten at Red Lobster a few times, and have always found it to be OK at best, and I have given it up. Austin Grill has never thrilled me. But that's my personal opinion.)

As for comments about Old Town Takoma...it has two chain businesses right now, CVS and a Subway, and it never "got rid" of chains because there were never any there to begin with. Old Town Takoma was never meant to be a big tourist attraction/gathering place like DTSS or Old Town Alexandria, and in many ways it simply can't. It doesn't have the size or the parking facilities or traffic accessibility, and can't do that without knocking down things like churches and office buildings and residences. It's fine being what it is, and to attack it because it's not exactly like Old Town Alexandria or Bethesda or DTSS is simply wrongheaded, in my opinion. Old Town Takoma is there to serve the locals, not be a tourist attraction. Not EVERY shopping area has to be a tourist attraction overflowing with chains!

Besides, if you think about it, chains started out as small, independently owned local businesses. Five Guys was just a little locally-owned burger joint in Alexandria, and now look at it. If we don't leave room for independent businesses, how can a new chain gain a foothold?

For me, it's not always about chain or non-chain, but quality vs. mediocrity. Some chains are good, some I find to be mediocre. Some independent restaurants and businesses are good or even great, and some are mediocre or even bad.

There is at least one chain I'd love to see in DTSS or even Old Town Takoma...Ten Ren, which has amazing tea.

Thomas Hardman said...

The whole thing about "Chains" v. "Locally Owned" gets a bit silly when you start talking about brand-new mall-like developments. As a rule, locally-owned businesses simply can't afford the capital burn-rate that can generally be absorbed over the totality of a chain. If one Red Lobster can't make rent, the other stores can prop up that one venue to get it over a bad patch. So, you won't see too many mom-and-pop locally owned restaurants along Ellsworth or comparable venues, unless they are something of a left-over or a set-aside.

And to be fair to the locally-owned restaurants and shops, quite frequently they're able to remain where they've always been, and see an actual increase in pedestrian traffic and "spur of the moment" customers and sales, because people can't find parking for the chains concentrated in the new high-priced development. Families headed for some decent-quality and very-consistent national or regional chains store might get about halfway from parking to the original destination, see something on a menu in a window, and decided to stop there rather than at the original destination. Thus, the chains are actually good for some of the locally-owned businesses.

Anonymous said...

I don't have any problem with chain restaurants, but I think that in light of the success of downtown SS, they could have possibly targeted a better class of chain restaurant. Compare with downtown Rockville.

Fiddler on Fidler said...

Let's not forget that Lebanese Taverna and Moby Dick are both small local DC chains too, and they're both on Ellsworth.

Of the restaurants in the Silver Sprung development, plus the three City Place joints that face Ellsworth Drive, I count:

- 6 single-location local joints (Asian Bistro, Pho Hiep Hoa, McGinty's, Adega, Thai at Silver Spring, and Ceviche [which does also have an affiliated wine bar in DC that is being renovated])

- 4 representatives of small DC local chains (Austin Grill, CakeLove, Lebanese Taverna, Moby Dick)

- 1 not-very-big Montreal-based chain with four locations in the U.S. (Eggspectation)

- 13 Giant Evil Chains (Baja Fresh, Chick-fil-A, Cold Stone, Panera, Potbelly, Red Lobster, Redrock Canyon Grill, Macaroni Grill, Starbucks, zPizza, Ben & Jerry's, Noodles & Company)

So, 10 locals in all, one mid-sized Canadian chain and 13 biggies -- doesn't seem that overwhelmingly malled up. (Come to think of it, Redrock Canyon Grill only has seven locations in its whole chain too, so it's not a place you can find just anywhere.)

We ought to invite the author of that City Paper article on and discuss just when a chain gets big enough that it's too evil to eat at. Tastee Diner has three locations but most everyone thinks of it as a Beloved Local Institution. If Ben's Chili Bowl opened up a second location I doubt the hipsters would be falling all over themselves to condemn it either.

AverageBro said...

I find it Oddly Strange that Silver Spring doesn't have any African American Owned Soul Food Restaurants..........

Clearly this person is clueless. Carolina Kitchen was on Colesville for years before the building burned down. They relocated to the Blvd At Cap Ctr. They did well here, they're doing even better there.

DC as a whole isn't exactly a "soul food" paradise, don't make this some underhanded knock on the city I love.

Woodside Forest said...

Many standard leases call for a guaranteed 5-10 year lease.
You have to have pretty deep pockets to make the grade with landlords who require that.

I'm happy enough with the choices in Silver Spring. It won't be that long before we see those initial leases come up for renewal and then I'm sure there will be an opportunity or two for a successful local place to come in.

Empty storefronts are death to a shopping/entertainment area. I think it was the right thing for the initial set of businesses to be ones that could be held to hanging in for an initial period of time.

Buff said...

I totally agree that the hysteria about chain restaurants is overblown but in my mind there's always been a cause-and-effect connection between the opening of the Red Lobster and the closing of Crisfield's on Colesville (where Ray's is now located). IIRC, Crisfield's closed within weeks of the opening of the Red Lobster. Now, it's up for discussion whether there's a net gain of Ray's plus a Red Lobster minus one of two Crisfield's.

Anonymous said...

My biggest complaint about the City Paper article is that they dumped on Half Moon. I always kinda liked that place. The food wasn't any good, but it did become a gathering place on open mike night in the early 2000s.

Anonymous said...

My biggest complaint about the City Paper article is that they dumped on Half Moon. I always kinda liked that place. The food wasn't any good, but it did become a gathering place on open mike night in the early 2000s.

MMKODC said...

Someone mentioned that "we still have a long way to becoming a [non-chain] restaurant Mecca like Bethesda or Wheaton." That's interesting to me as I started exploring restaurants in Silver Spring many moons ago because Bethesda in particular -- with the Austin Grill and Cafe Deluxe and such -- was boooring. Thank god my kid likes Ethiopian - she gave me the gift of finding a more interesting dining experience.

WashingtonGardener said...

Vagrarian - check your map - the CVS os NOT in old town Takoma - it is across the DC border. Believe me TPers in MD were NOT happy about it opening there. They did get them to concede and take down their horrible glowing sign though.

Anonymous said...

A high tide raises all boats they say and I'd have to agree. I've lived in SS for 20 years now and have driven ridiculous amounts of miles to get to a place to eat. I'm happy to have whatever we have in our backyards finally. I'll still drive as far as I need to if a place sounds interesting.

Face it, some of the local non-chain restaurants were just sub- standard places that were hanging on because there were no other options for the folks that won't venture furthr than a mile away.

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