As loyal readers may have noticed, I am not the world’s biggest fan of Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, though I am a member of The Yellow Cup Club for research purposes. So when I saw this press release from the Media Machine that is Dickey’s, I threw up a little bit in my mouth (ironically, it tasted a bit like Dickey’s pulled pork… I jest). According to the release, “In the past 8 months, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit launched 34 new stores in cities across the country, fueling employment growth in each community… bring[ing] employment opportunities to struggling communities. With each new franchise that opens we bring dozens of jobs and, while unemployment numbers remain at historic levels, we are looking to expand these efforts. As our franchise expands from coast to coast, we are constantly looking to employ people locally,’ President of Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, Inc. Roland Dickey, Jr. said.”
I am pleased that Dickey’s is “constantly looking to employ people locally,” since it would be a poor business model to open a restaurant that employs people who don’t work there. Still, I can’t help but feel like rooting for Dickey’s to grow is like rooting for Wal-Mart, Starbucks or any other number of mega-chains that have taken over for the mom and pop five-and-dimes and the local coffee shops of the country. Worse yet, whereas even the old time five-and-dimes sell the same crap made in China, and coffee is a fairly universal language, barbecue is/should be hyper local. Part of what makes barbecue so appealing to me is its particular heritage, its local flavor (figuratively and literally), and the multi-generational pride in regional, and even town to town, differences between meats, sauces, rubs, and the like.
In short, a barbecue chain is antithetical to everything barbecue is about. Chain barbecue, whether “good” or “bad” in taste, is by definition universal and designed for mass appeal, meaning it is anti-local. That may work for hamburgers, or coffee, or cheap t-shirts, but not for barbecue. I don’t want to be able to eat the same brisket in Cheyenne, Wyoming as I eat in Lockhart, Texas. If I did, I’d eat every meal at Applebees (baby back ribs, anyone?!).
Aside from my philosophical objections to franchising barbecue, I have serious reservations about Dickey’s overall impact on employment. Does each new Dickey’s franchise simply add local jobs, or is the truth a little more complicated? Are there one-of-a-kind local restaurants, whether serving barbecue or otherwise, that lose customers to Dickey’s? Will your favorite local BBQ joint survive Dickey’s aggressive expansion plans? Will the pitmaster who spent his adult life tending the coals at your favorite joint be eager to reheat meat in Dickey’s kitchen?
I know, I know, this is life in a capitalist economy and one can make a similar argument about virtually any chain. And life without chains would have drawbacks too (I own some of those cheap t-shirts and have a Big Mac from time to time). I don’t begrudge Dickey’s for doing what they do well, but I sure hope I’m not the only one who steers clear of The Big Yellow Cup That Could in favor of local joints that show pride in their uniqueness. The barbecue served by chains is something less than, while the barbecue served at your local joint is, well, barbecue.