What’s Wrong With Chains?

There are always people who prefer to follow orders. It’s just easier. There’s no responsibility, no risk, in anonymity.

This isn’t a political issue, it’s one of temperament and philosophy. Are we to live like ants or like lions? Or perhaps like birds, who are able to fly in perfect formations when needed, and still express their uniqueness in their songs and dances?

A Sandwich Soldier:

From the New York Times, February 17, 2001
By the Book: Individuality vs. Franchising

BELLINGHAM, Mass. — Stephen Gurwitz is proud that his Hilltop Farms convenience store has long been a fixture here in this small town on the Rhode Island border.
His grandfather, Milton Gurwitz, opened the little roadside building in 1955 as a place to sell milk and eggs from his farm. His father, Gary Gurwitz, expanded the store and added a deli counter. Mr. Gurwitz began working there as a boy and took business classes knowing that he would take over the family business someday.

Four years ago, he converted half the store to a Subway fast food franchise.
Mr. Gurwitz, 32, said he felt no shame at trading in the old deli counter for a nationally promoted name and formulaic sandwiches that taste the same as their Subway counterparts around the world.“For every independent convenience store that goes out of business, three chain stores open up,” he explained. “The ones that close down are the ones that don‘t keep up with the times.” For Mr. Gurwitz, joining Subway was a welcome respite from the myriad decisions he has to make in running the convenience store, which he co-owns with his father.

Making ‘myriad decisions’ used to be part of the fun life. As soon as the food designers at Monsanto and the franchise designers at Subway get together with the people at Sony, there’ll be no need for humans in these places. I envision contraptions which drop finished sandwiches into your lap on command. Right there, next to the ‘Coke’ button your television’s remote control: Sandwich, Ham’n’Cheez.

“They give you the operations manual, which is as thick as the New York City telephone book, and it tells you within a millimeter how thick to slice the onions,” said Mr. Gurwitz, who spent two weeks at the Subway training center in Milford, Conn. “If you have a question about anything, you’ll find it in the operations manual.”

No responsibility, no challenge, no creativity. Back on Earth, if the onions one day were less pungent, you might slice them a bit thicker, but of course that requires making a decision. In the FastFood world you call Monsanto to have them genetically reprogrammed. If the sandwiches made by this newly hatched clone restaurant were in any way good, I’d have to re-think this idea, but they’re not, and, in fact, will never be good so long as they’re made by people trying to avoid making decisions. To withstand processing, the meats and cheeses are rendered flavorless, and so they specialize in enormously complicated creations with funny names which come out of the microwave ovens with the texture of pablum.

Increasing centralization is turning bosses into drones. Bosses are supposed to make decisions. Following the instructions in a manual is similar to the job of a prep cook at a good restaurant, except that the prep cook is learning something useful, and one day he can become a true chef and do things differently. A franchisee will always have to follow the book. The manual was written to meet averages, timetables and economies of scale, not to feed people well. In my world, Mr. Gurwitz would find a place as a prep cook, and that’s where he belongs. It’s an honorable job for someone who doesn’t want to make decisions. The only real difference would be that he’d be working for someone who could make those decisions and didn’t need to publish them in a manual because they’d be there in the shop. And together they would make really good sandwiches, instead of “formulaic sandwiches that taste the same as their Subway counterparts around the world”.

Creativity The Fastfood Way:

Wendy’s chefs also tested new products… they slipped new burger incarnations through little windows into a “Sensory Test Area,” a white-walled room with 16 cubicles where tasting volunteers…ranked each burger.

Many suggestions sounded good but didn’t pan out. They thought about making the tomato slices thicker but didn’t want to ask franchisees to buy new slicing equipment.

Tasters said they wanted a thicker burger, so Wendy’s started packing the meat more loosely, trained cooks to press down on the patties two times instead of eight and printed “Handle Like Eggs” on the boxes that the patties were shipped in so they wouldn’t get smashed…

…The chain also started storing the cheese at higher temperatures so it would melt better, a change that required federal approval.

None of this is news, but when we put it in perspective and ask why it is this way, we find the answer, as always, in the mirror. Julia Child praised fast food for its “consistency”, precisely that thing which is wrong with it, because we’re forgetting the single most important rule for human progress: Random chance, mutation.

We don’t have to eliminate uniformity in industry, it’s great that car tires are all the same. Nor do we have to sacrifice quality by hiring only nihilists. But we need to keep alive the spark of life which drew us out of the slime in the beginning. If we stop using our imaginations, they’ll cease to serve us. We need to get our noses out of instruction manuals so that we can look out, once again, to the stars.


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