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COLUMN: Chain of Foods

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I have always thought it to be one of my worst vices that I have a very limited palate. The term might be obsolete, but I am what used to be referred to as a “steak and potatoes man.” This is made worse by the unfortunate fact that my stomach is not terribly tolerant of many foods.

My kids have developed my discrimination towards diverse foods. I am working hard to prevent that from being a lifelong trend. It would be a tragedy for anyone, especially my children, to lack an appreciation for eclectic cuisine.

What makes this ironic is that I grew up in South Philadelphia…a place that I believe has the best food in America. If I gave you the full tour of my beloved hometown, you would not starve for bounteous dinner options. And here is the kicker: every single place I would take you to eat is independently owned.

Like most large urban areas, Philly don’t do chains.

I can’t understand why anyone back home would ever step foot in a Subway when there are multitudes of great hoagie shops. Pizza? You can go to just about any street corner and find a pie that is unquantifiably better than the bland offal that chain pizzerias offer. And no one with a drop of Italian blood in their veins would ever think of walking into an Olive Garden—not if they want to avoid being disowned by family and friends.

Welcome to Utah. Home of crappy food.

Utah, the place that gave world cuisine fry sauce and green Jell-O.

I have praised and condemned many things in my decade as a Utahn—but few things make my eyes roll in the back of my head in exasperation more than Utahns’ love for bland, unhealthy and thoroughly unremarkable chain restaurant food.

This might come off as nothing more than a random generalization, but I do not speak in absolutes. Of course there are many eateries in Utah that are independently owned which flourish. And like anywhere else there are residents of Utah who mostly, if not completely, shun the chains that beset Utah’s strip malls and highways.

But they are the exception. The rule states that if an eatery has a boring, square building and a menu that makes you gain 3 lbs. simply by reading it, the lines will be out the door every weekend night.

A typical weekend conversation between a married couple in Utah might contain the following:

“Hayli, why don’t we pack up Jaxtyn and Bryttanee in the car and go out to Brand X for dinner? The kids love it when the servers interrupt our meal to sing a bizarre song near our table. Make sure to bring an activities bag for our little munchkins because we most likely will wait an hour before we are seated. And aren’t we fortunate that our elected politicians have made it safe for our children to eat their 3,000 calorie onion crunch macaroni and cheese appetizer without having to see a bartender pour a colorful glass of sin juice?”

Yeah, I snuck in a justifiable dig at Utah’s Zion Curtain law. That felt great!

Allow me to turn that witticism into a segue. Utah politicians have made it easy for the chain restaurants to be prepotent over “ma and pa” establishments. For all of the trumpeting coming out of Salt Lake City about how Utah is a “business friendly” state, they really do not make it easy for small businesses to flourish here.

Utah’s regulatory rules, fees (SIDE NOTE: If a government entity forcibly takes money from a business owner as a condition for them to operate, it is not a fee, it is a tax), arcane laws regarding liquor and food licensing and zoning boards at the state, county and municipal levels whose ordinances and bylaws could pass as the 13th Herculean labor make it an exercise in masochism for Joe Middleclass to open a business here.

Business friendly? Only if you are sitting in one of the big chairs on the TV show “Shark Tank.” Or, if your idea of business friendly is wooing large corporations who only bring with them under-paying jobs with little future or security.

It is more like “business frenemy.”

Now, allow me a brief psychological dissection of the typical Utah mentality regarding bad food. If we raised a generation of children to believe the color green was good and that the color purple was bad, this would be seared in their psyche forever. They would wear green clothes over purple. Car? Bedroom wallpaper? Green. Accepted to both Utah Valley University and Weber State? Go Wolverines!

If you nurture your children on chain restaurant food, they will develop a comfort with it that will assuage them. The reason why you can read this column is because someone taught you English. The reason why Utahns have a propensity to patronize corporate rubbish over their next door neighbor is because they do not know any better.

I feel compelled to place a profound metaphor regarding the film “Soylent Green” somewhere in this column. Most of you that do not know the reference would be mad at me if you looked it up on Wikipedia. Thus, I abstain.

I do understand that convenience matters. So does comfort, affordability and commonality. I like to eat a sandwich from Jimmy John’s. I consider the steak burrito at Costa Vida to be a party in my mouth…and everyone is invited! Chains do not necessarily equate to a bad meal; and small eateries do not always provide tasty options.

But how many of you can truly say that you go out of your way to support local businesses? Especially in Cache Valley…a place that is plagued with corporate paramountcy. How many of you can name the last five places you ate and say with honesty that three of them were owned by locals?

Support local businesses. Eat somewhere where you have never eaten before. And change the eating habits of your kids before they become just another dumb schlep waiting in line on a Friday night to eat a meal that is nothing special.