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Franchise Row

[Ancient Faith Radio; September 19, 2007]

It’s a hot Tuesday afternoon. I’m here at – I’m embarrassed to say where I am – I’m in the parking lot at Taco Bell; I’m just about to go through the drive through and get some lunch. But I just pulled over for a minute to look around this corner. You have this corner where *you* live. At this stoplight I can see there’s Panera Bread, Office Depot, Lowes Home Supply, Walgreens, Kmart, Target, Toys R Us, Best Buy. That just scratches the surface, you know? It’s everything that clusters together, like birds of a feather: these big box stores and these very big standard franchise outlets, all over the country. It doesn’t matter where I go, you know, if I’m east coast, west coast, north or south, this same stuff, this is the landscape everywhere you go.

And I feel kind of guilty about participating in it. There’s a loyalty reason I go to Taco Bell; it’s because my sister Dorothy works at a Taco Bell down in Jacksonville, Florida. But where my ambivalence comes from has a lot to do with the ideas that my friend Rod Dreher expressed in his book, Crunchy Cons , that came out about a year ago. A book about so-called crunchy, as in crunchy granola, conservatives, people who are devoutly religious, who have many conservative viewpoints, but nevertheless they resist the kind of banal landscape and consumer profile that our country seems to exemplify.

One of the points he made was, don’t shop at Wal-Mart; that’s one of the worst. Wal-Mart’s goal is to make goods available to the rural poor in America, which sounds admirable except the problem is that they are getting even poorer people to make them, so America cannot produce these good anymore, and it’s like global warming for the economy; it just falls into a downward spiral.

Well, I just came from Wal-Mart. I still shop there. Not just for the low prices but it’s so darn convenient; everything you want is under one roof; it’s right there.

Rod encourages, shop locally. Find your local businesses, locally-owned. Buy from your neighbors, and give them your business when you’re out to buy things. I have found an excellent auto mechanic shop. I love going there. I had more trouble with another one of the local stores; it was an old business that had been established in my town for generations and yet every time I went there, I would get an earful about how hard it was to compete with the franchises. And I just got tired of it. The very thing that Rod was encouraging, that you make these personal connections with people who live in your neighborhood, was the reason I stopped going. I found that I just preferred to have a faceless encounter in a bigger store than to always hear these complaints. That’s probably very shallow of me, but these are the kinds of decisions that these consumer patterns are made on.

There’s a local bakery. Again, it’s probably been in that shopping center for fifty years. When I’d just come to town, I needed a cake for a special occasion, I ordered the cake from them, took it to the special occasion, cut into it and found out it was a bundt cake with a little cardboard disc placed over the hole, and then icing thrown over the whole thing. I’ve never gone back there; I’ve never purchased anything at that bakery since.

This is a problem everywhere, that the franchises actually deliver better goods, better service, less complaining. I notice when we’re driving around the country and we pull over to go in a restaurant, usually, if it’s a locally-owned restaurant—usually it’s just not as good. They’re using canned soup, they’re using white bread, everything comes out of a can.

I remember going to a southern extravaganza banquet, and I swear the collard greens came out of a big can; it just wasn’t good food. It’s almost as if you have to go to the more upscale restaurants or the franchise restaurants to get a standard of food that is actually edible and enjoyable. So I hate this. I feel caught; I don’t know what the answer is. I feel guilty when I email Rod about it. But these seem to be the ways I’m making my purchasing decisions with my consumer dollar, and I can’t say I’m totally happy about it.

Well, I’m going to get a burrito.

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