The Flattening of Taste: The Rise (and Maybe Fall) of The Hipster-Foodie Chain

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63 Responses

  1. Avatar greginak says:

    I think the Internet has widened tastes. I can find out about so many foods and recipes i never would have experienced before. Growing up in NJ i obviously had the advantages of many ethnic communities making their traditional foods and all the food in NYC. However few people outside of the big cities had that luck. But now we can all find out about so much it is much easier to have a varied palate. That has created openings for new kinds of restaurants and exotic cuisines.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      That’s another way to look at widening or flattening. Yet the concern is not necessarily limited to food. This was a famous essay from a few years back on how the Internet has turned every music scene into Brooklyn:

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Meh…there have always been scenes that are hot until they are not. Athens Georgia was the in place in the 80’s when REM, the B 52’s, etc came out of there. By the time it was a national scene and people flocked there for it, the scene was over because the time had passed and all sorts of people went there just for the scene. When the first bands out of Athens became popular there were people all over the country picking up their sound and trying their spin on it. That is trends. Same thing happened with grunge/Seattle.

        The intertoobz does spread knowledge around and certainly may minimize localities in a way. But a scene, of any artistic sort, is mostly about the unique time and place and mostly importantly the people at the time. It can’t be consciously created and never lasts. Any place really creative people are gathering together and creating in the same milieu can form a scene. They may have wider knowledge but that is just fuel for the fire.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        To add on. I vividly and fondly remember my music obsessed days of my youth. The rumor of a hot new Echo and the Bunnymen import was exciting only tempered by the fact it would cost far to much to buy. When i got to college i was a dj on the college station so i had access to a zillion songs and all the new stuff. Having all that new music was wonderful. It didn’t quite have the adolescent longing of HS when i dreamed of all those distant bands i could never get to hear or only hear when i could get into NYC. Having the songs was far better then dreaming about what might be out there. And i lived in north jersey so i had far more access to the Alt early 80’s scene than most. Plenty of people would never been able to hear as much music as i could or even dream about getting access to the records i could. Heck all the good bands came through NY so once i was in college i could see all of them.

        Its better to be able to hear and see and play your music then have great stories, a la the beatles traveling in search of a chord. How many great bands or singers or writers never got a chance to blossom because they couldn’t get access to knowledge or be pushed on by others or hear what was out there to fire them on.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      I don’t know if I buy “widening” or “flattening”. Sure, you can get Shake Shack in Chicago. But I can’t get Thai food within 30 minutes of my house in suburban/ruralish NY. People still think it’s “weird”. I’m in an area that identifies very much as small town, blue collar, and the like. This isn’t a criticism, mind you, but there has been minimal flattening in my area. And I live less than an hour’s drive from Manhattan. In addition to fast food and contemporary American cuisine, we have Italian, pizza, Chinese take-out, a couple of sushi joints (one of which is Korean owned and has some solid Korean dishes, but they had to go the sushi route because that is an acceptable form of exoticism up here), and a Mexican restaurant. That is for a population of over 25K in the town plus some surrounding municipalities that lack much of their own commercial traffic.

      A high end fast food joint originally based in NYC moving to Chicago isn’t flattening. Pho in Nowhereville, Nebraska… that’d be flattening.Report

  2. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Why are you linking these restaurants with the hipster movement?

    “Many of these businesses have their cache and allegiances because they are seen as caring about quantity over quality. I wonder if they risk losing costumers and appeal from too much expansion.”
    This is nothing new.

    And it is interesting that you juxtapose these with McDonalds and Olive Garden. You say you want consistency, that you don’t want the Shake Shack in Chicago to be below the quality of that delivered in NYC. But consistency is *exactly* what McDonalds and Olive Garden aim for. Their main purpose is to give you the exact same meal in NYC, Chicago, or Fargo. No surprises… just exactly what you are looking for. Shake Shack is no different in this regard. They’ve simply convinced you they are.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      “Many of these businesses have their cache and allegiances because they are seen as caring about quantity over quality. I wonder if they risk losing costumers and appeal from too much expansion.”

      Ask In n Out Burger.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        I actually don’t like In n’ Out very much. Mainly because it all seems to be about the animal sauce and the animal sauce is roughly equivalent to Russian Dressing. I dislike Russian Dressing.

        I dislike most salad dressings but that is another story.*

        *I use a little meat or goat cheese to give salad some wetness.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        I was quoting from the OP, @james-hanley , but you are dead-on that In-and-Out is meticulous about not allowing their “brand” to be co-opted through expansion. That is why they are limited to the West Coats: they only work with certain suppliers and don’t want their product shipping cross country. And I choose the word “brand” here because I don’t think it is JUST about quality with In-and-Out. Part of their brand has become the fact that you can only get it on the West Coast and that they really care about ingredients, etc.

        Chipotle is similar. Every now and then you’ll go into a Chipotle and they’ll say, “Sorry, no guacamole today” or something similar because they were unable to get the ingredients to make it up to snuff.

        But the thing is… every chain started out as a local business. Most people know Five Guys as a huge chain. But not long ago it was a single shop in the DC area. McDonalds didn’t open overnight nationwide. It, too, started as a single shop. Now, some of these places do change what they do to allow for greater expansion.

        Again… I feel like a false distinction is being drawn between entities that are essentially the same safe for superficial differences. In-and-Out is a chain. Shake Shack is a chain. McDonalds is a chain. They all want to offer you the same experience regardless of where you enjoy their food. It is simply that the experience they offer is somewhat different and, as a result, that impacts the manner in which they expand. But nothing changes the fact that all three are trying to replicate a profitable experience in a near-identical way on an increasingly large scale.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        “*I use a little meat or goat cheese to give salad some wetness.”

        Oh man… so many possibilities with that one! :-pReport

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        That is why they are limited to the West Coats…

        10 locations in Utah. 25 in Texas. From a story about why they haven’t opened in Colorado yet: “To maintain the fresh quality of the food, In-N-Out will only open new restaurants that are within a day’s haul from distribution centers in Dallas, Texas; Phoenix, Ariz.; Los Angeles, Calif.; or Draper, Utah.” Control of the supply chain, yes. Limited to the West Coast, clearly not. It seems pretty much inevitable that they will get to Colorado, once they have lined up their sources. There’s a whole bunch of people along the Front Range who are waiting eagerly for the day…Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        Oh, silly you. I’m from New Jersey. Everything west of Philly is the West Coast. 😀Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        When I lived in NJ, I mentioned to a local that I had done my high school and undergraduate time in Nebraska. She responded with “Oh, that’s out there by Ohio and Nevada, isn’t it?” She didn’t seem to understand why that annoyed me, until I pointed out that characterizing NJ as being “back there by Maine and Georgia” was a smaller error in placement :^)Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Wait… is that true???

        Also, where in Jersey?Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        R. occasionally asks me if such and such state is near Minnesota, because in her New York brain, everything that’s not on the Pacific coast must be near Minnesota.

        She’s probably asked me that in In-N-Out burger half a mile from her apartment, which is 2 days drive from the coast.

        Five Guy’s is better.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        I was listening to a New Yorker talk about how he alternates vacations to the east and west coasts of Florida. He sounded ridiculous, because all of Florida is the East Coast, just like everything else past Reno.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        I’ve never had the animal sauce. All you need is a double-double with cheese, fries, and a shake.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        For distances, let’s use state capitals for convenience. Then we get Nebraska-Nevada is 1,226 miles and Nebraska-Ohio is 722. New Jersey-Maine is 383 miles and New Jersey-Georgia is 691. No matter how you cut those numbers, “back there by Maine and Georgia” is only about half the error that “out there by Ohio and Nevada” is.

        Almost ten years in New Jersey, all in Monmouth County, most of it in Freehold Township.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        The sense of scale with the east coast (northeast in particular) is just so different from other parts of the country. People I knew from Cali spoke of taking overnight trips between SF and LA and driving 8 hours. If I was gonna drive 8 hours… well, first off, I’m not driving 8 hours, I’m probably flying… but if I were, it’d need to be a long weekend at a minimum. 8 hours gets you through a half dozen states over here.

        I grew up in Bergen County… Teaneck. I now live in Orange County, NY.Report

      • Avatar gingergene says:

        @Kazzy Between High School and College I did a student exchange in Germany, and was trying to explain American distances to my German host-mom. I told her that later that summer my family was driving to Colorado for a cousin’s wedding, and that it would take 24 hours of driving to get there. Her response: “If we drove for 24 hours, we would drive off the end of Italy.”

        (We always drove because there were 5 of us, and my mom was a teacher and my dad was self-employed, so during the summer break we had more time than money.)Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        It’s an attitude thing. I live outside Denver; my mother lives outside Omaha. For the last 18 or so years (most years since my dad died) I’ve spent a week at my mom’s in the summer to do handyman stuff for her. It’s about eight hours driving time each way. I won’t say it’s routine, but it’s not that much more time than driving to and from airports, checking in, collecting luggage, and the actual hour-long flight itself. Plus I can take my own tools, my bike, and my fencing gear with no extra fees. Of course, it’s pretty mindless driving, all Interstate. Between Denver and Omaha there’s only three places with a population over 25,000 and the Interstate goes around those, not through.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        The density issue is a real one. Travel between DC and Boston (approximately 8 hours) can be one giant traffic jam. From south to north, you go through Baltimore, near Philly, through NYC, and then Hartford. And that doesn’t include smaller “cities” (things we’d never call cities but would qualify as such in other parts of the country): Newark, Waterbury, Worchester. And even beyond that, you are traveling through super densely populated areas pretty much beginning to end. On a perfect day, you can make it in about 7.5. Odds are it takes significantly longer than that even if nothing goes wrong. And if something does go wrong? You might as well walk.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        One of my few homages to the Kosher rules is a dislike of cheeseburgers.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      Saul is linking these restaurants to the hipster movement because they attract a hipster crowd and follow hipster craft aesthetics on local ingredients. If you ever been in one, you will know it.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        What does hipster even mean at this point? Do we just attach it to anything that is popular with young people and seems new or different?Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        Where the hell is Blue Bottle getting local coffee?
        You’re doing as well to ask about where Dobra Tea is getting their tea…Report

  3. Avatar zic says:

    Entrepreneurial companies have to grow, and that seems the antithesis of hipsterism, particularly when it comes to food. Just sayin’Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      I was sort of trying to point out this contradiction and problem but not as directly as you did.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      Oddly, I find hipsterness, in its current incarnation, to be inseparable from the entrepreneurial spirit of expansion. Every hipster chef starts a food truck with dreams of becoming a sensation, moving to a non-mobile location, and then opening half a dozen iterations of the original. And they have been doing it all along, chasing fads along the way. I don’t see it as inconsistent in any way, but hipsterdness has never, in any incarnation, been about uniqueness or originality.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        But isn’t that true of non-hipster chefs? If anything, I would attribute this to the delusions of grandeur that are commonplace about young people than something specific to hipsters.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        @kazzy , oh definitely. I was mostly just pointing out that hipsters aren’t actually different in this regard, which seemed to be the point Saul and zic were making. In fact, I take it to be one of the features of histperness, one of the things that makes someone or something hipster, that it is chasing and expanding what is “hip,” which will always be certain fads. In the food world, this means grabbing onto culinary fads (say, bacon or kale) and, if one is business-minded (as many hipsters are), building and then expanding food-based businesses around those fads.

        In its current form, histperness has been really closely tied to the startup culture that has emerged over the last decade or so, which is all about taking a clever idea that involves being in touch with some aspect of the moment, and expanding it so that you can make real money off of it. I’d add that there’s a DIY component to the startup culture that has become a big part of hipster culture as well.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        I feel like that might be Hipster 2.0. Or, really, Generation-Whatever-Generation-This-Is-y. What I understood to be the real heart of hipsterdom — this odd desire to be counter-culture while conforming to a very specific fashion, musical, and attitude aesthetic –seems to crested and receded in recent times. The broader pursuit of “cool”… of the current fad… well, that is timeless. It may just seem more omnipresent… more a movement… because young people are better positioned and empowered to make their presence known. It used to be that “Madison Avenue” dictated to folks what was cool because they controlled the airwaves. Nowadays, “Madison Avenue” responds to them because they are Twittering, Facebooking, and the like. Sure, Roy Choi might get lumped in with hipster food culture, but his story really has nothing at all to do with the original hipster movement.Report

  4. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    You’re lucky, @saul-degraw , to be in the bay area. Ground zero for hipster food in all of California opens this week in Berkeley.

    BART, run, bike, swim, or drone copter your way to Smoke’s Poutinierie at 2518 Durant Ave, Berkeley, CA 94704. I shall expect a full report from you soon.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      We will see if there is a Bay Area left by this weekend. We might be washed out to the sea.Report

      • Avatar aaron david says:

        I was gonna say, it will be wet tomorrow in Berk. And I have business in Oaktown.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        To be fair, @burt-likko did recommend swimming over….Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        Right now it is this very eerie calm before the storm. I originally heard the rain was supposed to start today. Then it got moved to 8 PM tonight. Now it is 9:20 and still not raining. Everyone is still predicting a really bad drench (school was canceled!!!) but it looks like it really won’t start until tomorrow morning.

        I find this kind of status unnerving and you kind of just want the bad stuff to happen so you can get on with it.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Not just a drenching — 35-50 MPH winds. I just came in from some late-night shopping, and it felt ominous as hell outside: humid, awfully warm for 10 PM in December, and the wind already picking up.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Not just a drenching — 35-50 MPH winds.

        I here ya.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        With as much drought as you Californians have been suffering I would expect you all to be out dancing in the rain en masse.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        We’ve had a wet November/December and been glad of it, but today is something else. Like, my work cancelled a long-planned day of group meetings/activities and advised everyone to stay home.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        They canceled school in the Bay Area today!

        Also downtown is apparently without power and at least one BART station is closed.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        My office, which is a few blocks south of Market, never lost power (that is, I can remote into my work desktop and see that it hasn’t rebooted for days.) I’ve heard that there’s no power north of Market.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      It would have to awfully good to walk the extra 100 yards instead of getting a brat or a kosher at Top Dog.Report

    • Avatar Maribou says:

      Having spent years in Montreal, I see Smoke’s as NO FAIR WHY I CAN’T HAVE POUTINE rather than as hipster.

      Poutine is ubiquitous in Montreal. *Real* poutine. Here in Colorado, well, I hear there’s a potato-based food truck that will be off-hiatus in March, maybe.

      *looks wistful*Report

  5. Avatar LWA says:

    What makes hipster “quality” precarious is that it depends heavily on intangibles; What makes the burger taste good is the freshness and preparation, but also the reputation, the quality of the tattoo or beard of the chef, the backstory to the restaurant, and the clientele.
    I think this is why nothing is more unhip than the hip which reaches its “sell by” date.

    Its the reliance on the tools of capitalism- brand identity, marketing buzz, and cache that makes the claims of superiority over the regular banal brands reek of class; It tastes good because of freshness, but also because the Right People eat it.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      Well we’re also at the point where hipster is a meaningless term. It has been stretched to include whatever someone wants to label hipster. The wrong shirt, beer or condiment and you are a dreaded hipster. For as much as hipsters are supposed to be all about the “right” things they are the easy “wrong” kind of person to throw stones at.Report

    • Avatar LWA says:

      Very true; but even as it constantly evolves and mutates, hipsterism- that culture of well educated, young people with disposable income who inhabit the cutting edge of culture are eternal.Report

  6. Avatar Hoosegow Flask says:

    I wonder how much has been flattened on the back end, and hidden from consumers, due to the Sysco-ization of the restaurant industry.Report

  7. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    I’m old, and I don’t get how things work with kids today, but — since when is any chain restaurant hipster?

    The very concept of a national chain for hipsters sounds like an oxymoron to me.Report

  8. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Also, now that I’m skimming the comments I see that a lot of people are talking bout the sameness in chains being about brand. And while brand is an important byproduct, it isn’t the main reason chain restaurants have everything exactly alike. The main reason is because that’s the only way you can both keep costs low to fit within your margins, and to be able to constantly control your expense per item.Report

    • Avatar El Muneco says:

      Not to mention that one of the big advantages to being a chain is that the McDonalds in John Wayne Airport gives the same experience as the McDonalds in downtown Portland as the McDonalds at your local college. Yeah, there’s a downside in that you’re kind of lower-common-denominator-ing yourself, but there is a legitimate value in consistency.Report

    • Avatar switters says:

      While costs/margins are important, consistency of experience is the holy grail for chains. Mcdonalds could reduce costs further in certain locales by competing its needs on a more local scale, with the end result being that a bun here may be different than a bun there. Not all the time, mind, but certainly some of it. But they don’t, or they usually don’t, because consistency is ultimately what they’re after. While low costs and consistency are usually linked, when they are not, chains will choos consistency. Its more important than costs. In particular, when you have franchisee’s that absorb most of the costs, while the brand is controlled by the franchisor, who is much more interested in maintaining the brand.Report

  9. (I haven’t read the comments yet, so please forgive.)

    I haven’t heard of Howells and Hood, but looking at the menu, it sounds kind of good.

    I do think if you limit yourself to the Loop or the Mag Mile (which is about where Howells is, given the address), you’re probably less likely to get whatever passes for “uniquely” Chicago food and instead more likely to get a combination of chainy chains, Chicago-chains, and fine-dining experience. Of course, you might not have had a chance to get out of that area because you were short on time. There are some places, though. Two are Frontera Grill and Topolobompo (sp.?) (both next to each other and operated by the same chef, Rick Bayless) that serve gourmet Mexican food you might’ve liked and that’s near the Loop area. That’s not unique Chicago food, but it is a “fine dining” experience that is probably peculiar to that chef.Report

  10. Avatar Ken Tee says:

    (Downtown Chicago native, here.) Howells & Hood is a relatively new, and quite large “pub” style restaurant in the famed Tribune Tower. It’s aimed squarely at Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue tourist trade. I’ve not eaten there but the menu seems very typical of a dozen similar places in that area.

    As an older person I can’t help wondering if style isn’t overcoming taste and substance when it comes to restaurants and perception of them. I also wonder if the author’s few hours in Chicago, and limited dining experiences, really are sufficient for him to anoint any restaurant in any manner?Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      “As an older person I can’t help wondering if style isn’t overcoming taste and substance when it comes to restaurants and perception of them.”

      I just think this is the evolution of trends. White tablecloth dining is out; rustic-and-homey is in. That will change at some point.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        Salt of the Earth is doing “white tablecloth” except with communal dining. It’s kind of fun, actually.
        “come as you are” and we’ll serve you awesome food.Report