Would you travel 2,300 miles for French fries? Probably not — but they would for you. In fact, they do all the time.
Recently, I had some time to kill on my way to pick up a friend who was having car trouble. I figured I’d go to the nearest restaurant, grab some food, and maybe use the Wi-Fi to do some work until it was time to meet him.
The nearest restaurant here in my hometown of Salisbury, Md., was a newly constructed Five Guys Burger and Fries — a chain fast food restaurant known for its “never frozen” burger meat, as well as its hearty Cajun-style fries. Five Guys got its start in nearby Northern Virginia in the 1980s, and now has more than 1,000 locations nationwide.
As I drove into the parking lot, I lamented the fact that the last time I’d stepped foot on the property, it was Zia’s Italian Restaurant — the last of only a few locally owned, independent restaurants on the north side of town.
When I walked into Five Guys, I regretted my decision. A large sign proudly exclaimed that their potatoes came from Martin Farms, in Blackfoot, Idaho — some 2,316 miles from Salisbury. Though I’m sure Martin Farms is a lovely place, why would potatoes — soon to be fries — travel so far to end up on my plate?
Were these potatoes special? Not likely.
Wicomico County, where Salisbury is located, is considered by the USDA to be a rural county. This relatively small county has a yearly agricultural output of more than $235 million and around 500 agricultural-based businesses.
Could those not-so-special potatoes be grown in Wicomico, or any of the neighboring Eastern Shore counties? Of course they could. But because of some supply-chain shenanigans and lack of franchise commitment to the local economy, the money I spent in Salisbury was redirected clear across the country — to Idaho and who knows where else.
According to the American Independent Business Alliance, if you spend $10 at a local independent restaurant, nearly half gets re-circulated into the local economy. But at a franchise like Five Guys? Once you account for franchise fees, centralized advertising, top-down management and sourcing things like potatoes from thousands of miles away, only about $1.36 stays in town.
As I returned to the parking lot, I stood there for a moment and slowly took in the sprawling embarrassment that is a four-mile stretch of TGI-Ruby-Tuesday-Apple-Chili-bee-Wild-Wings-type establishments. My hometown had been overrun by swarms of uninteresting, cookie-cutter “blandchises” like the burger joint I’d just left.
And what they were vacuuming up in money and character, they were returning in carbon emissions. According to GreenEatz.com, you’d need to drive about 18 miles to produce the same emissions as eating one standard 8-ounce beef burger.
But that’s just the burger patty itself. Add in cheese, onions, tomatoes, a bun and fries — probably, like my Cajun fries, all from potatoes grown hundreds if not thousands of miles away — and you could be talking about one environmentally unfriendly meal. And that’s not even counting the emissions from powering a gas grill, heating a deep fryer, or refrigerating the burger or other ingredients.
Over 300 million Americans eat about 50 burgers per year, with each burger causing about 9.48 pounds of emissions, according to Source Power and Gas. That comes out to over 75 million tons of carbon dioxide per year — and that’s on the low end.
I understand concepts like competitive advantages and scaled production. But if an area is choked with unfamiliar, soulless corporate entities — and specifically restaurants paying low wages — what’s the competitive advantage in that?
How can a region like ours attract new talent if it lacks character? How can it inspire a new generation when it is surrounding them with a sprawling, uninspiring corporate cornucopia of blah? Low-wage fast food jobs simply don’t seem worth the cost in character or climate.
The least that can be done is to ensure that raw materials be sourced locally to support local farmers — and do the least harm to the only planet we have. It’s time to rethink franchise food.
The source: The Baltimore Sun