It’s 3:15 on a Saturday afternoon and I’m sitting at a Starbucks sipping on a chai tea latte. I think to myself about the franchise. Not the franchise of Starbucks—that’s an article all on its own, but all franchises—the whole idea of the franchise.
I don’t know about you, but when I think franchise, my first thought is food—KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King. Those are the ones that get a bad rap most of the time, anyway. But there’s also the high brow franchise, the more easily palatable franchise, the Red Lobster, the Chili’s, the Olive Garden, the “when you’re here you’re family franchise.” As someone from a small town, I’ve seen how these franchises can transform a city, how they can give it a sense of culture and sophistication. Not that I altogether agree with the notion, but I can’t deny my own sense of enjoyment from unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks.
But what’s to be done? The way I see it, a franchise is fundamentally a formula, and it’s a formula that works. In most medium sized cities in the US, you can stop at a Starbucks and order the exact same chai tea latte I mentioned at the beginning of this article. And there’s something satisfying about the consistency of it all. My chai tea latte here is the same as your chai tea latte there. And easily, you develop a trust in the product and the business—simply put, you know what you’re getting.
And that’s the beauty of a franchise—it’s convenient. There’s no need to pull over and ask, “Say, where’s the best coffee shop in town?” when right there, gleaming ahead, is that beacon of truth and coffee beans, the girl with the wavy perm on the green sign. My friend points out to me that with one stop at a Walmart you can get spinach, tampons, and new tires. Seriously, where else can you do that? So yes, it’s convenient—but convenient at what price? Somehow, somewhere, there’s a sense of exploration and adventure that gets lost in the bargain of 50 McNuggets for $9.99. And if you exclude the excitement of a burning hot coffee and a fried chicken head in your Happy Meal, the franchise, believe it or not, has become your safest bet. And really, who could blame you? Why should you take on the risk of a new restaurant when the franchised one offers all the reliability and security that comes along with its beautiful brand?
In the 4th grade, our class was taxed with the assignment of memorizing each state’s nickname, you know the Sunshine State, the Golden Gate State, that sort of thing. I remember thinking how neat it was that every state was like its own microcosm. There were landmarks and culture that could only be experienced in that particular place. And while it’s still true that the states have their differences, with such growth in franchises, one can’t help but feel that places are starting to look a little bit the same.
This slow homogenizing of the US bothers me because I know how lousy it is when those singular and unique experiences are taken away. Once, in grade school I came back from summer vacation proudly wearing a t-shirt I got at Yellowstone. But much to my chagrin, one of my classmates who had stayed home all summer was wearing the exact same thing. He had gotten it from a thrift store, and as he wore it, the value of my tourist t-shirt’s exclusivity plummeted considerably. I remember looking at him with a feeling of betrayal, “How dare you wear that shirt without ever having been?”
But, there’s no use getting mad about it, because like those Yellowstone t-shirts, franchises are meant to be enjoyed by everyone. Like I said, they’re convenient. Hell, if you can’t make the trip to Paris, there’s an Eiffel tower in Vegas with your name on it.
And you might say, so what? The US is getting a little franchised and what’s wrong with some uniformity in the country? Besides, a franchise, by definition, is basically a good idea. I mean, it wouldn’t be able to be franchised if people didn’t like it, right? And really, what could be better than one good idea? How about two? Or three? Or four? Or cloning that same idea until it becomes over one million served?
On a recent trip to India, our relatives took us to the mall. It was ironic, I know. Here I was, leaving America—only in a bizarre Christopher Columbus type twist of fate, the place I’m looking for is nothing close to what I find. But I’m here, I’ve done all the traveling, so I might as well call all the Native Americans “Indians” and plant the seed for a centuries long confusion where people will continuously ask me if I’m the powwow Indian or the dot kind. Yes, I am at an Indian mall, and I go with it. I ride the rolling escalator past the shiny glass windows of shops, and think about how this country was once known for its profound peace and self-exploration. Oh, how cruel it is that the world is round, that I could end up right back to where I started. And yes, there before me, as if I could ever have escaped it, is the McDonalds.
But when I see their menu, I am overjoyed! This is not the same McDonalds—it’s different! There’s a “Spicy Delights” section of the menu and not to mention a Chicken Maharaja Mac! And while I’m not sure that that sandwich is fit for a king, it’s encouraging to see that the franchise has had to change. And I think back to the days before TV and the internet, when the world was not so terribly connected. And in that isolation, there was the opportunity for us to develop our own distinct tastes and culture, the remnants of which are still palpable in the Chicken Maharaja Mac. Yes, this is the new individuality! By God, we’ve found it! Let us rejoice! But even this sandwich, born in deep fryer of capitalism and cultural simplification, will last us how long? The question is, what happens when we hit the bottom of the melting pot? (As a side note, The Melting Pot, is also the name of an upscale franchised restaurant) Do all the flavors turn bland, because to appeal to everyone, no one can stand out?
With the internet, we have the capability for a global collective experience. What began as a nation listening together to their president’s fireside chats, then laughing along with favorite late night host, now watches with the rest of the world as a dog dances Merengue on Youtube. But don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we can share something, no matter how ridiculous, with someone thousands of miles away. And it’s even better when we can do it simultaneously. Did you know that at HEB, a Texas grocery chain, the exact same song is playing over the intercom at the exact same time at every single other HEB? Yes, you sir, in the toilet paper aisle, have unconsciously taken part in a shared experience.
In the movie Old School, Will Ferrell, pressured to do a hit from a beer bong by his newfound college friends, explains that he can’t drink as he has plans this weekend with his wife. “We’re gonna go to Home Depot. Buy some wallpaper, maybe get some flooring. Stuff like that. Maybe Bed Bath and Beyond.” And the joke is funny, as Americans we all get it. We’ve all been to those stores, all experienced suburban life. Except when you start to think about it, really think about it, about the loss of individuality that’s at stake, the joke’s not just about Will Ferrell’s lame weekend anymore, it’s about our lame weekend. The joke, is on us.
Meena Ramamurthy, Contributor — Meena is a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where she somehow managed to get a degree in both Radio-Television-Film and English while not attending a single football game. Previously, Meena interned with the Disney Channel on their preschool block, Playhouse Disney, and with National Public Radio on their multimedia show, The Bryant Park Project. Her interests include trying out new recipes and foods, working on her radio show, Listen Up!, and acing her friends in tennis when they least expect it. Check her out at http://www.wix.com/meenaworks/themeenamix