In Defence of Chains

We hear a lot about how generic English town centres are due to the proliferation of chain stores and restaurants, and I’ve complained about this in the past. Today, partly because I’ve just had a nice lunch in CafĂ© Rouge (nearly 100 branches throughout the UK) and am sitting in a comfy brown leather chair in CafĂ© Nero (over 300 branches), I’m going on the defensive. Is a generic English town centre actually as bad as we’re led to believe?

To start with, how many English town centres do you ever actually find yourself in? Probably no more than one on a regular basis, and maybe a couple of others when you take a day trip on a sweaty bank holiday weekend when you’re probably too grumpy and hot to really appreciate anything anyway — the point being, what difference does it make to someone living in Rochester that they share a large range of shops with, say, Exeter? Probably very little.

For the residents of the town, those shops that appear in every English high street do actually sell things that residents need, so I’m sorry if the tourists turn up and are disappointed that the high street is populated by HMV and Boots instead of local artisan stores selling hand-whittled jams, but sometimes I need to buy some plasters and Boots seems to be a logical place to do that. I’m quite glad that it’s located in prominent location, because if I’ve accidentally shaved an artery then I don’t want to be wandering around the quaint side streets looking for an independent chemist.

A man’s gotta eat

When friends would visit me in Oxford, we’d stop for coffee in various independent or semi-independent places — The Grand CafĂ©, CafĂ© Coco, Georgina’s — but we’d generally lunch at CafĂ© Rouge or Pizza Express. And now, here in London, with all its hundreds upon hundreds of different eating options, where do I find myself eating most of all? It’s CafĂ© Rouge and Pizza Express, where I know in advance of arriving that I can get a decent Steak Frites or Capricciosa.

These chain restaurants are not challenging or unique eateries, but sometimes — most times — that’s not what I’m eating out for. Sometimes…I just want lunch. Stuart Maconie wrote in Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North, “Having railed against the increasing homogeneity of modern northern street life, I’m now going to renege on all my principles by admitting that I don’t mind if it means that there’s a twelve-inch American Hot in every town with my name on it”, and I can understand this. It’s low-risk living, but so what if the food’s good and the atmosphere congenial?

Maybe I’m just getting old

It should be possible for an English town to have these national stores and retain a regional character — it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Perhaps what’s needed is a bit more collaboration between chains and local retailers — I don’t see any reason why a chain restaurant can’t source its ingrediants locally where available, and even offer some local specialities alongside the standard menu.

I should also point out that although I’m easing off on the prevelance of chain stores and restaurants, I’m in no way condoning eating at Nando’s; a chain is only acceptable so long as it isn’t serving spicy crap in a bun.