There’s a sign in Columbus, Ohio, mounted at the entrance to a car park, denoting where the first Wendy’s restaurant once stood. In 1969, in a city still full of diners, founder Dave Thomas created a version of the diner that emphasised standardised menus and cleanliness — a “family restaurant”. One cut above McDonald’s, it began the process of taking what Henry Ford had done — standardising the process of production — and applied it to the other end, running consumption on the factory system.
A half-century later, there are thousands of Wendy’s outlets across the US, one of the dozens of major chains that majorly damaged the independent cafe and restaurant sector in the US. There was something deliciously postmodern about the utter absence of anything actual to mark the site of the chain’s founding. It would have been disappointing if anything real had survived. This transformation of low-budget dining out into, in many places, merely choosing between a franchise of one chain or another always struck me as one of the most depressing, self-defeating things about the US — a truly dystopian twist in the country’s development.
Wendy’s, with its neutral decor and utterly unremarkable food, burgers mainly, is the degree zero of what Americans unironically call “the restaurant experience”. Lacking the trash glamour of McDonald’s, the glutinous excess of the huge fatburgers of Carl’s Jr., or the weird 1970s persistence of a chain like Ruby Tuesday — leadlight lamps and brass rails on polished wood — Wendy’s ubiquity had a totalitarian air. Years earlier I had seen the surviving “milkbars”, not unpleasant standardised restaurants the Polish communist government had created during the Cold War. Wendy’s seemed a capitalist mirror to that minimal outfitting and offering.
Now Wendy’s is coming here! The chain has announced it will be rolling out hundreds of restaurants in Australia over the coming months, intending to take on Macca’s and Hungry Jack’s. That’s if it can resolve one problem: we already have a home-grown ice cream chain under the name. So we might soon be getting a basic family restaurant chain named Sally’s or Cindy’s, or, my vote, that unique Australian preference for girl children, Desley’s (if you run a coffee shop and have a daughter, change its name to her name now, and you might have a sufficient trademark claim to get bought off).
Wendy’s has identified a gap in the Australian market since, for all their upgrading, and clown-bauhaus look, Macca’s, Jack’s and KFC still look, to me, in my entirely subjective opinion, like sputum troughs and giblet tanks. Wendy’s, for Americans, is a place where you can sit around a table as a family and linger over slightly more acceptable fare, not download liquid meat in sugar buns, a process of reverse diarrhea, before buying pills from the dude in the booth near the restrooms.
Well, good luck to Wendy’s management with that, and by good luck I mean fail, burn and depart in ignominy. The reason there is that gap in Australia is that we still have a relatively thriving independent affordable cafe/restaurant sector, at all levels of expenditure. For Australians, if you want something more than a sputum-hosing, it’s usual to go to a place that has some sort of independence and distinctiveness, even if, increasingly, those are now chains of a limited extent, three or four or a dozen outlets.
Does it matter whether such a sector exists or not? Of course, it does. We want life to be rich in variety and particularity; for habits to have multiple variations; for an experience of place to be about a unique or distinctive place itself.
The reason you can tell that matters is that chains like Wendy’s, and Starbucks, work by imitating that feel of distinctiveness and locality, but on a uniform and massive scale. Starbucks imitated the hip Seattle coffee shop and spread it everywhere. Wendy’s imitates the sort of cottagey, mom ‘n’ pop restaurant that Americans used to eat at.
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Nostalgia is encoded into Wendy’s styling, giving it the vague air — as Kundera said of communism — that “life is elsewhere”. In franchise-chain capitalism that elsewhere is in time, a place where consumption once involved a measure of real life-activity. That’s why such chains have a strange melancholy-uncanny air, while somewhere like Aldi doesn’t. Aldi isn’t pretending to be anything other than a depot where you can buy home brand baked beans, earth-moving equipment, and children’s snorkels. All Wendy’s and other chains really have to sell is the suggestion that they are something other than a massive consumption platform.
Wendy’s is coming here, in part, because such franchise-chain-platform capitalism has killed American place. Our lower-end wage purchasing power has suffered over recent years; that of Americans has plummeted. Tens of millions of people can’t afford to eat at a place like Wendy’s anymore, even as a treat. Demand decline and the rise of online retail have killed their malls, which had killed their downtowns. Councils have given franchises and chains tax holidays, cheap exurban land, unlimited car parking (while taxing it downtown) and acceded to any zoning request they have, no matter how much life it sucks out of actual cities.
That’s before any action by the chains themselves, who fund new franchisees on a loss-leader basis, in order to be able to undercut independent operators. As we’ve seen with franchise groupings such as Gloria Jean’s and the nineteen separate doughnut store brands that arose in the great era of quantitative easing, the franchise honeymoon doesn’t last, and the bite then comes down. Less severely in the case of an outfit like Wendy’s, who emphatically aren’t pure shonks out for a quick buck.
But the hammer comes down nevertheless in all these outfits, and franchisees then have to squeeze huge hours out of their staff and themselves to make it work. Chain-franchise is the Fordism of consumption. It’s also the proletarianisation of small businesses. The meaningful activity of creating your place, with its unique character, is restricted, because the capacity to start up and win a clientele is reduced by the chains’ market coverage, achieved by their scale. So even if you own a franchise, you are simply enacting the instructions from an enormous ring-bound manual.
With the victory of franchise chains, something does further diminish in a culture, because it trains people to expect nothing more than an invariant experience in dining out, to regard freedom as nothing other than choosing between various patterned, designed offerings, all drawing on the rich meanings created by something they are helping to kill off.
There is no reason why, as part of “new urbanism”, one can’t control such chains over urban areas of a certain size. That starts by giving them absolutely no tax breaks or planning favours whatsoever, and in tilting the field towards independent operators, by reducing city parking taxes where they favour exurban siting — the process which has turned thousands of American cities inside out, downtown boarded up, and a string of franchises side by side on the freeway out of town.
This aspect of “new urbanism”, support of small, independent business, is something the independents, the Greens and Labor local councillors could get into, and gain new sectors of support for — since the Coalition will pretend there is no division within capitalism, in order to guarantee major corporate donations. The movement began in Bologna in the 1960s, under a communist government, that reversed the notion that the workers’ left should be indifferent to how capitalism owned and delivered consumption. The same indifference has lingered in labourist Australia, in part because, in the pre-wage-theft era, it was easier for unions to negotiate better deals with large corporations, rather than small operators that tended to be anti-union, shonky, and, often as not, perpetually on the brink of insolvency.
Now that large corporations have become efficient machines for wage theft, it seems to me that that advantage is gone and that a workers’ movement should be interested in what sort of conditions obtain for people to spend the wages they earn.
Our city centres, suburban high streets and country towns are still various, vibrant and viable, in a way that those in vast swathes of the United States simply are not. Having spent much of the last 15 years in and out of the US, that is something I am thankful for every day of my life, for it is life itself, and in the US, a dimension of it has more or less departed. It’s worth protecting, it’s worth fighting for, and it’s worth more money and resources from government — grants, low-interest loans, and structural assistance to people who want to set up a cafe or restaurant that looks like no other such cafe looks.
My reckoning is that once there’s a level playing field, with a bit of compensating tilt towards independent operators, and a resistance to city-killing zoning favours, Australia will retain the capacity to stay free of the chains. Yeah, Macca’s and KFC are everywhere. But they’re the bottom-level food depots. What really kills is these mid-level chains, pretending to be life itself, while being its opposite.
Wendy’s claim that it will open “hundreds” of “restaurants” is bluster and hype. But it will certainly have a go, and may not be the first. Well, we defeated the Starbucks franchise. Coffee chains and fascists: they will never win in Melbourne. I reckon we can leave the cutesy Wendy’s mascot as a red-haired pigtailed fly-blown girl-skull on a beach. I am sure their lobbyists will be fanning out across the country as I write, to ensure that does not happen. But we retain a degree of placeful life in Australia, and we might be able to hold on to it, waiting for a time when there arises a greater revolt against Wendyworld and its dour vision of human life. The…
“Sir, this is a Wendy’s.”
This article was first published on Crikey.