The Inevitability of Big


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I’m glad that Tom Philpott took the bait on my praise of chain restaurants and went in with a bit of snark:

A few weeks ago, Think Progress star blogger Matt Yglesias penned a paean to mediocre strip-mall chain restaurants, calling for “more Olive Gardens” and deeming the the faux-fancy steakhouse chain Capital Grille “excellent.” So impressed is Yglesias by the food system that he would apparently like to model the education system after it!

Well that’s not really what I said about education, and the Capital Grille is neither mediocre nor located primarily in strip malls. I’ve been to locations in downtown DC and downtown Pittsburg, and their Porcini-Rubbed Delmonico is both delicious and—at $45 a pop—seems genuinely fancy to me.

But the real point I want to make is that if we ever see the kind of changes in agriculture and food consumption that Philpott and I would like to see—something healthier and more ecologically sustainable—it’s likely to happen largely through the mechanism of chains and branding. As long as technology keeps advancing, human time and human labor will keep getting more valuable. That means that people will increasingly want someone else to do their food preparation for them, and also that innovations that allow food prep to be done with less labor power will be more and more rewarded. That means chains and franchises that can rationalize the production process and who have sufficient scale to reap the rewards of investing in organizational innovation.

From a public health standpoint, there’s a lot to like about chains. Since they have scale and standardization, you can get them to disclose nutritional information and many already do so to at least some extent voluntarily. What’s more, there’s nothing impossible in principle with the idea of a chain serving organic food—I get salads from these guys all the time. And with large chains and brands it’s actually feasible to monitor the claims people are making about their supply chain. It’s pretty well known at this point that a lot of “big organic” stuff is in many ways fraudulent, but the whole reason we know that is that we’re talking about large-scale producers whose operations people took the time to look into.

None of this is to say that people should be dupes for the status quo. It’s mere to observe that there’s a certain inevitability about important things happening at large scales. What’s more, insofar as good things happen at small scales, the best thing that could happen next is for them to scale up and get bigger. New ideas tend to start small, and when the status quo is bad that means you’ll often find good ideas at small shops. But to change the world, you need some combination of changing big institutions and turning good institutions into small ones.