By Editorial Board
When the new Popeyes location recently opened in Robinson, lines of vehicles immediately formed a dense, slow-moving spiral around the drive-thru, reminiscent of a hurricane inching across the screen of a radar map. It stayed that way most of the weekend and well into the next week.
The fact that the crawling swirl represented hungry suburbanites awaiting their fill of mass-produced chicken – rather than a destructive onslaught of rain and wind – is perhaps only modestly good news for humankind.
No ruined homes, no lives lost – and for these we should of course be glad. But chain restaurants can wreak havoc of their own on the local economy, and on neighboring restaurants in particular.
Even when owned by local operators, franchises benefit from corporate branding campaigns, supply-chain efficiencies and other advantages denied to local restaurant owners.
The food industry is notoriously ruthless, and successful ventures usually only draw profits in the margins. It’s always sad to see plucky entrepreneurs close up shop after just a few years in the business – but it’s not uncommon.
During the past year, the ravages of the pandemic also brought about the end of several longstanding favorites, like the Village Tavern and Trattoria in Pittsburgh’s West End Village.
Many others are hanging on by the skin of their teeth, and they need our support more than ever. With the economic recovery now underway, restaurant owners are facing staffing shortages and, whenever they can find workers, increased pay demands.
The reasons to shop local go beyond supporting the local owner and staff (chains usually have these, too). Benefits in fact extend to the entire local economy of restaurants, stores and other services.
One national study calculated that for every dollar spent in a chain-owned restaurant, only 30 cents remains in the local economy, while for locally-owned restaurants, 79 cents stays local.
We see this kind of local economic synergy in the many nearby food spots that proudly carry Ricci’s Italian Sausage, of Kennedy, and Mancini’s Italian Bakery, of Stowe, for instance.
But local restaurant owners are also more likely to call in a local contractor for upgrades and maintenance issues, use a local accountant for bookkeeping, and so on.
Buying local isn’t just about economics, though. It’s also about taking pride in the distinctive character of your community.
When workers poured into Western Pennsylvania towns looking for work in the early 20th century, they brought with them pierogies from central Europe, gyros from Greece, pizza from Italy, among all sorts of other culinary staples.
While they can of course be found in different forms across the country, plenty of local spots keep on serving up these ethnic favorites in a way that’s true to local tradition. If a mainstay like Juliano’s Restaurant and Pizzeria in Robinson or Pierogies Plus in McKees Rocks were bulldozed to make room for a Domino’s pizza outlet, those communities would lose
something they cannot bring back.
Since the early industrial days, the Pittsburgh region has of course evolved, welcoming in new populations of people, along with their cuisines.
These, too, bring opportunities to support local options over national chains.
Take the newly-opened Mekong Diner in Ingram, which serves up authentic Thai and Burmese dishes far superior to the indistinct buffet platters found at P.F. Chang’s and other nationalized brands, or FABS Food for the Soul in Stowe – another newcomer offering West African-inspired soul food that’s likewise unavailable at global fast-food chains.
Returning to chicken, though...we encourage anybody willing to sit for an hour in an idling car for a serving of the nation’s favorite edible bird to consider diverting their appetites to B & M Market in Sheraden, NakaEndzone BBQ in Crafton Heights or even highly localized chains like Hook Fish and Chicken, which operates one of its five locations in Stowe.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could pack out the parking lots of these, or any of our other wonderful eateries, with the motorized serpents so frequently seen encircling fast-food chains?
Their owners and staff will definitely thank you, but perhaps so too will their plumber, their landlord, their meat supplier.
We can at least hope these will also be local.