With Five Guys coming, what’s the truth in the chains v independents debate?

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Five Guys is about to open

“Oh, no annuvva bleedin’ chain restaurant,” some well-lubricated face opined in a Canterbury city centre boozer the other day.

This puce commentator was referring to the impending opening of Five Guys, a burger joint chain in St Peter’s due to begin trading on Monday.

I suppose it’s better than that moronic refrain: “Oh, no, not annuvva bleedin’ restaurant.”

I’ve never understood what some people have against businesses that sell food usually far better than we can cook it ourselves (self-aggrandising home gastro-knobs accepted).

But I do understand why some become mildly agitated at the prospect of the opening of chain restaurants. For some they appear tacky and unattractive.

Others measure their supposed quality against homespun or fine or “authentic” dishes served up by independents.

And then there are those who regard chains – or indeed big business of any kind – as a variety of social enemy forcing employees into a form of servitude which must be destroyed or else as rampaging beasts in need of taming.

All this then helps open up the debate in Canterbury between chain restaurants and independents. It is a debate, however, which often rests on three primary fallacies:

Briefly, they are:

  1. That there are too many chains compared to independents
  2. That over-mighty chains crush independents
  3. That, broadly speaking, people do not like to see chain restaurants in places such as Canterbury which are deemed special – unlike, say, Ashford or Sittingbourne, which are regarded as shitholes

Until a couple of years back, I would have believed the first of these. But while writing a lengthy feature on exactly this subject in 2015, I actually counted them up: independents outnumbered chains by a ratio of roughly 4-1 in the urban area of Canterbury – and I doubt the picture is any different today.

Far from Canterbury becoming a clone town, it would seem this is a healthy ratio. And chains, let’s not forget, are simply successful businesses which almost always grow out of independents.

Thus they provide a kind of certainty for customers who know exactly what to expect and a stability for workers whereas those inside independents might suffer at the whims of their owners.

The second fallacy can also be dismissed by the facts. Canterbury has a number of independents which have stood the test of time – even through financial crashes, recession and the so-called age of austerity.

To name a few, these include the Kashmir, The Royal Inn, Raj Venue, Kudos, Cafe de China, Pantelli’s, Poppin’s, Maria’s, Pinocchio’s, Cafe des Amis, Saffron Cafe, The Refectory, The Olive Grove, Cafe St Pierre, Bangkok House, Lanna, Cafe Mauresque.

Others are more recent arrivals, but look to be well on the way to firmly establishing themselves in the urban landscape: The Cornerhouse, Ambrette, The Naughty Egg, Cafe Solo, Longport Cafe, Boho, Cafe du Soliel, Chom Chom, Korean Cowgirl, Ancient Raj, Pork & Co.

It’s true that Pork & Co’s sister restaurant Deeson’s was a casualty earlier this year, but it was so largely because of spiralling costs rather than sinister chains stealing trade.

That doesn’t mean that the restaurant industry isn’t fiercely competitive. It is. Something like half of new enterprises fold within a year and 80% will do so within five. And a lot of those are opened by people who don’t actually really know what they’re doing.

Moreover, if this year’s narrative of the retail world is anything to go by, large chains are finding themselves horribly susceptible to national or international economic forces which are proving well beyond their control.

Finally, the belief that chains are broadly speaking not wanted in places like Canterbury is not borne out by the fact that people like and use them. They wouldn’t exist if they didn’t.

Like I said above, chains offer familiarity and certainty for customers who might not be willing to take a chance on an unknown eatery especially if they don’t know a particular town or city.

In all we should probably be grateful that Canterbury has the mix that it does and that the best thing we can do is the support those businesses we come to like be they small or large.

The opening of Five Guys on Monday isn’t going to change any of this. Mind you, I hear their burgers are a tad on the pricey side…

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