The restaurant review heard round the world: Marilyn Hagerty, 85, reviews Olive Garden for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota.
The Twitterverse smirked, Gawker and Fark choked and sputtered. The ensuing electronic deluge might have been poking fun at Grand Forks, at 40-year newspaper veteran Hagerty or even at Olive Garden itself, described in the review as "the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks."
But it seems more likely that the snarkfest was a nationwide recognition that there are some communities out there where, in the absence of great independent restaurants, the arrival of a household-name chain is cause for celebration.
Brandon, you're no Grand Forks, but don't get too smug. Cruise along Brandon Boulevard and other major thoroughfares and get your checklist ready: Chili's, Outback, Village Inn, Beef 'O' Brady's, Buca di Beppo, Bonefish, Carrabba's, Mimi's Cafe, GrillSmith, Panera, Red Lobster, Applebee's and, yes, Olive Garden. I'm out of breath here, but I could keep going.
Why does Brandon have such a preponderance of chain restaurants? Opinions vary.
According to Al Paone, owner of Brandon's Shrimp Boat Grill, it's partly because Brandon has a more transient population than some other nearby communities. A diverse population with a fair number of snowbirds, residents may be drawn to chain concepts because, as Paone says, "you know what you're going to get there."
He's also quick to note that chain restaurants tend to have multiple levels of management, lots of employee training and systems in place to "idiot-proof" the kitchen and dining room operations.
Independents, often smaller-scale and smaller-budget endeavors, may not have these safety nets built into the system, and they are visually less dramatic and come-hither, often stacked along strip malls as opposed to in freestanding buildings with major-league signage.
John Reeves, general manager of Brandon's Mellow Mushroom, a chain out of Atlanta, thinks it's a function of being in the suburbs.
"Suburban people like consistency, and that's harder to get in smaller places. It's harder for the little guys to compete."
But he agrees with Paone that a transient population favors the chains: "We get a lot of people from out of the state who come to live here."
So why does it matter?
According to a report released in February by research company NPD Group, independent restaurants have been disproportionately decimated by the recession.
And they're still struggling.
Americans ate out 60.6 billion times last year overall, down from 62.7 billion in 2008. That's a 2.1 billion difference — 2 billion of that in independent establishments. That's 87 percent of the losses on the backs of independents.
No one would claim that independent restaurants are inherently better than chains (although it is true that to patronize a locally owned business is often to put your money back into the community).
Still, independent restaurants are often the vision of a single person, a person who may be a creative genius or woefully confused. In the world of food, as in art or literature, real change and forward momentum is seldom achieved by committee.
Put another way, a great chain restaurant may excel at executing and a great independent restaurant at innovating. For a robust restaurant scene, you need a mix of both.
If the Brandon area wants to improve its status as a place for good eats, it needs more independents and more residents willing to give ambitious chefs and locally owned eateries a chance.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293.