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Chain Reactions 

Love ’em or loathe ’em, chain restaurants wouldn’t exist in Richmond without a thriving market.

click to enlarge feat25_french_fries.jpg

Scott Elmquist

Chain restaurants are a punch line in popular culture. Denny's is for winners, so says the cult sitcom "Community," the sarcasm dripping like so much grease.

At the root of these Kentucky Fried jokes is recognition that chains are part of a universal experience for a goodly number of Americans, even us Richmonders.

In a sense, chains are a quick way to connect with the masses and, problematically, easy shorthand for identifying behaviors assigned to lower socio-economic classes. We tell youth to get their acts together or else they'll be flipping burgers at a fast food joint, an easy punching bag for jokes about what's cheap and low-quality, verging on ratchet.

But there are so many reasons why — despite the lack of freshness and quality — we occasionally still gravitate toward them, whether it's childhood nostalgia or simply a guilty, convenient pleasure.

That Taco Bell isn't some goopy lifestyle brand exhorting you to "Live Mas" isn't what's up for debate. Regardless of how you feel about them, chains are an undeniable part of our foodways. That's so even in Richmond, a city where we've turned anyone with disposable income and a half-functional, self-concept into connoisseurs of local restaurants.

We live with chains — a lot of them. Richmond has more Subways than decent public transit options. As recently as 2011, NBC-12 reported that Richmond had the third-highest number of fast-food restaurants per capita in the country. Eat your heart out, James Beard! Also, congrats and condolences to our area cardiologists.

Underneath the buzz about food, it's helpful to consider why people may need chains for reasons that town food snobs may not appreciate immediately. Sure, there is a convenience aspect to breezing through a drive-thru to avoid cooking at the end of a long day, especially if you've got a car full of children fresh from soccer practice and the immediate need to end hangry whining becomes greater than the virtues of any slow-food movement. Small kids, I'm told, are also notoriously hard to dine out with, and pancake houses are a favorite destination because what little kid doesn't love sticky, syrupy pancakes? To top it off, most of the booths can easily be wiped or hosed down for the next customer.

But how many people don't have that choice? For too many, the fast-food grease monger is the only affordable option for more than just the occasional indulgence. That fact should give all of us a little indigestion. Let's face it: Not everyone can afford a nice dinner out full of fresh produce and meats from (insert local farm of choice here). Not everyone can even afford groceries at Kroger in this town. Food insecurity is the issue that launched a thousand nonprofits. And chains serve a function to gratify our nostalgic guilty pleasures from childhood with happy meals and to, hopefully, keep us mindful of how far we have to go.

Food justice probably doesn't mean the elimination of fast food chain restaurants. People will always crave the things we know are bad for us — but I hope this city doesn't stop being mindful of the issues, regardless of how bright our culinary star continues to shine.

It's not that we shouldn't have good food. But we should figure out a way for more people to not have to worry where the next meal is coming from — and whether it's coming from the golden arches in a carton or from a community garden and home kitchen.

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