How do can we tell if a restaurant is an ascendent chain? It calls itself “local”.

It’s been over a decade since I wrote about the fish, chop, and steakhouse known as Kincaid’s, a chain with a location in Carmel, Indiana (an Indianapolis suburb) that, based on my fleeting observations, was doing everything it could to downplay its very chainy-ness.  

And that was the point.  The interior of Kincaid’s included artistically enhanced images of important Indianapolis vignettes like Major Taylor pedaling his way to first in a bicycle race, the busy interurbans of Washington Street, even an old charter from a long-defunct Indianapolis and Saint Louis Railroad Company.  The folks who conceived of Kincaid’s did their research.  They wanted their restaurant to seem like an Indianapolis original.  A local concept.  Keep in mind, this article of mine dates from 2009.  This is long before I started spotting the unequivocal financial struggles of formerly stalwart national restaurant chains, but definitely from a point in time when I knew that, even in wholesome suburbs like Carmel, the absence of a “cool factor” with chain restaurants was causing their popularity to flag.  They lack the personal, local touch.

And it’s gotten worse.  The coronavirus pandemic did no restaurants any favors, chain or otherwise, but it’s getting hard even to find a Ruby Tuesday or O’Charley’s; they used to be everywhere.  As for Kincaid’s?  Well, it’s long gone from Carmel.  Four locations survive: two each in California and Minnesota.  But that’s not even the point.  Kincaid’s is a brand within the mega-conglomerate Landry’s Incorporated, a network of over 600 restaurants, hotels, resorts, and even some casinos and an aquarium or two.  Kincaid’s didn’t begin in the Indianapolis area; it didn’t begin in St. Paul or Redondo Beach either.  Kincaid’s owes its origins to a series of handshakes in a corporate boardroom.  There’s nothing fundamentally unethical about this.  But let’s not pretend it was organically conceived; its advocates wanted to find a concept, align it with a market, and make lots of money.  Exactly what homegrown restaurants want to do, but without the friendly familiarity.  The owner of a Kincaid’s doesn’t live three miles away.  He or she doesn’t live in the gated estate on Geist Reservoir either.  And the last name most certainly isn’t Kincaid.  Instead, those Cornell-educated hospitality execs find nice little touches to give a place like Kincaid’s the illusion of local charm.  And hope it works.  It seems to have done the trick in St. Paul, but not Carmel.

So it should come as no surprise when I saw a fresh-looking restaurant sign at a familiar mall in northern Virginia, part of the Washington DC suburbs:

I was foggy on the origins of Maggie McFly; was she a real person?  Looking it up, it appears to be a less conspicuous reference to Back to the Future Part III (Marty McFly’s great-great-grandparents).  Not sure the reason behind the aviator helmet, since that movie was set in the 19th century Western frontier, but it could just as easily be a passing reference to the last name “McFly”.  At any rate, Maggie McFly’s is a table-service oriented, casual restaurant with an attractive, expensive looking sign and good branding strategy, leading me to conclude that it’s a chain.  I mean, it’s located at the entrance to a mall; what else could it be?!

But that’s not what caught my attention to Maggie McFly’s specifically.  It’s some of the other backlit buzzwords:

small chain restaurant advertises itself as local

At this point, “Craft” ranks right up there with “artisan” as a term that elevates the cachet of an enterprise without telling its intended customer base anything in particular.  It’s a flavoring word.  But what about “Local”?  Is Maggie McFly’s local?

Well, not exactly.  But it’s seems to be trying, at the very least.  A quick trip to the website shows eight total locations at the moment, all but three of which are in Connecticut.  (Two in Virginia, one in upstate New York.  Let’s not doubt for a minute that number will change a year from now; what’s uncertain is whether it’ll shrink or grow.)  If the story is any indicator, the first location opened almost thirty years ago in Middlebury and it has assumed a slow and steady growth trajectory, all under the oversight of the original owner/manager, Ray Harper.  More importantly, although its current geographic spread would put it in the ranks of a mini-chain, Maggie McFly’s has made an unprecedented effort to partner with local vendors (the “artisans”) for its basic ingredients.  And while these local partners may only be proximal—within 100 miles or so of the restaurant locations—it still shows a sensitivity and awareness for the need of fortifying a base of grassroots support.  After all, partners like Capital City Roasters, Perfect Blend CafeAvery’s Branch Farms, and Young Veterans Brewing Company may have a similar geographic reach and available capital as Maggie McFly’s did two decades ago.  More importantly, the brains behind Maggie McFly’s—possibly Mr. Harper himself—seem to understand that, while eye-catching logos like our fetching aviatrix help enforce the notion of an established and successful brand, they also hint at a financial backing that suggests a corporate chain, which is something a growing number of aspiring restaurateurs seek to downplay.  Even if the headquarters are in the home town, corporate concepts don’t feel local.  In terms of a soup-to-nuts vision that grows from success, Maggie McFly’s is doing a better job than Kincaid’s, but that shouldn’t take much effort: Kincaid’s was and always will remain a corporate concept, a business idea driven by a desire to tap into a market, rather than any individual’s genuine passion for food or the surrounding community.

But Maggie McFly’s will have to emphasize the “local” and “craft” to attract customers who might otherwise go somewhere that simply seems more local and craft.  After all, the well-invested exterior makes it look like a chain.

small chain restaurant advertises itself as local

And it’s in a mall, for crying out loud.  If the mall is financially successful, it’s going to have chains.  More importantly, in this same Springfield Town Center, just a few hundred feet away, stands another restaurant with equally abundant outdoor seating.

Actual local restaurant in the Springfield Town Center mall

It looks nice.  Not fly-by-night.  But the signage is a little less extravagant, the logo less smartly conceived.  It turns out the post-pandemic 54 Restaurant really is 100% local; this is its only location.  It truly is the Maggie McFly’s of 1993.  And it might actually hint at the overall finances and desirability of the Springfield Town Center, a subject in the past–one that I noted previously as a successful mall reinvention.  Floundering in the 2000s, a venture capital-oriented REIT purchased the property, mothballed it for a total interior makeover, then repurposed it from Springfield Mall to Springfield Town Center in the early 2010s, with far more exterior appeal in the form of restaurants easily visible from the street.  It’s hardly a top-tier mall today, but it’s getting by well enough, and the parking lot on this west side of the building is nearly always full when I’ve made my periodic visit.  Also on this exterior are such national known restaurant/entertainment concepts as Maggiano’s Little Italy, Dave and Buster’s, and Yard House.  So it’s supporting some big names, a true local like The 54 Restaurant, and something in-between (Maggie McFly’s). Springfield Town Center seems to boast a stronger restaurant portfolio than a mall that has nothing but chains—too corporate, too bland and predictable—or one that has nothing but mom-and-pops, which is usually an indicator of low leasing rates suggestive of a struggling or even dying mall.

It remains to be seen if the quite new 54 Restaurant and the “teenaged” Maggie McFly’s have found a viable long-term model at the Springfield Town Center.  I’ll confess that I haven’t stepped inside either one to see if they continue to tout their local-ness.  But Maggie McFly’s now has twice as many locations as Kincaid’s, while The 54 Restaurant seemed noticeably well-patronized on a frigid weekday in January.  I wish both businesses the best.  Certainly a lot more interesting for a mall exterior than a TGI Friday’s.

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5 thoughts on “How do can we tell if a restaurant is an ascendent chain? It calls itself “local”.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      No doubt—Houston (like the DC suburbs) is a huge test market. While NOLA is such a demographic outlier that it’s the exact opposite. Good to hear from you, Leonard!

      Reply
    2. Leonard Wiggins

      we try to find local or regional places where we can. Sadly, it seems as if the market likes chains though. Quantity over quality I guess.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        One good way Mrs B and I have found is to Google “farm to table”. I don’t think that search has turned up any chain (other than one mini-chain owned by Elon Musk’s brother Kimbal).

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          I think you’re still safe with that term, Chris. At least for now. And the Kimbal Musk mini chain seems to have been put on an indefinite hiatus, while its other locations (Denver and Cleveland I think?) have fully closed. Hasn’t the Indy location been closed for almost a year? I walked past it over the holidays and it still looked like it could open again tomorrow. The computers were all still on and fully lit. Shame for a mothballed business to occupy such prime retail space, but I guess if you’re a Musk you’ve got a little extra money to burn.

          Reply

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