• Dave McGuire

Clarksville's Broken Dining Culture

Updated: Apr 15

The Clarksvillian

I hear the *sigh* followed by "I don't care". Is this a reference to another pending visit to the DMV lobby? How about the wait for an explanation about "Lightband" from CDE? An installation schedule from Charter? The answers could easily be yes, yes and yes!

You're hungry and can't imagine visiting another Chinese buffet or cloned Mexican restaurant with 300 menu items consisting of the same 8 ingredients? The disappointment forms to the right and the line is beginning to grow longer and longer.

I remember being asked why there wasn't a foodie website for Clarksville's restaurant scene. Come on, really? Has anyone visited a less imaginative dining community? God bless the handful of businesses striving to make a difference, but do most Clarksville residents really care? It's difficult to make the argument Clarksvillians actually care about a quality and unique dining experience. If you can name two chefs in the area, I'll retract that statement. Go!

While you're debating the next destination to refill your appetites consider these 5 things:

1. Every chain restaurant in Clarksville essentially buys their products from the same food-drink suppliers. And yes, these chain restaurants do not source local product to support the Clarksville area economy.

2. The local restaurant employees are not different from their national counterparts. They tend to relocate among similar restaurant to restaurant experiences which limits future creative opportunities on menus.

3. Restaurant profit margins are constructed via out-of-town corporate formulas. i.e. Similar budget accounting for indistinguishable menu items, drinks, salaries, benefits, costs-of-sales, and profit margins. See a trend?

4. Yes, chains do fill a service to the area and provide jobs. Extremely important and valued jobs for the local economy. However, those businesses also send our local dollars out of town and invest those meal expenses into other communities. Remember that impact during the next tax increase discussions by the local politicians.

5. Lastly, if you're looking for a value meal then stay at home. It’s cheaper, and often healthier, to eat a home cooked meal.

Wouldn't it be a great local amenity if a business owner had the market confidence to open an Italian ristorante? What? You say Olive Garden is Italian? Please spend your time focusing on opening that tricky can of Chef Boyardee and don't cut your hand! How about a French bistro? Greek restaurant beyond gyros? A German bierhaus? Peru is the new trendy menu, right? How about a Brazilian steakhouse? Puerto Rican venues opposed to dozens of cookie cutter Mexican restaurants? Along those lines, how about regional Mexican restaurants? Then we have to worry about non-local, mini-corporations hiding behind local branding. A good example can be found at the marina's "Liberty Park Grill" which is a Clarksville themed restaurant via Knoxville ownership. The sad part is we honestly deserve our sad state of dining options. Local restaurateurs are not seeing the signs of local first sustainability from residents. Are we collectively ready to step up and consistently support a creative local restaurant scene?

If chain restaurants are bland, why are they popular?

Bulk purchasing power drives their pricing leverage low enough that it becomes difficult for family owned businesses to compete.

  • Corporate chains invest more capital into their buildings and interior decor. The venues tend to be larger with greater seating capacity (bulk purchases of frozen food come into play too).

  • National marketing, advertising budgets are based on low cost shared pricing spread across corporate and/or franchisee owners.

  • Bulk ordering reduces prices (often pre-cooked or frozen foods)

  • Predictability is comfortable. Menus are more consistent and safer.

When food is purchased in bulk through corporate leveraging power it may still be tasty, but there isn’t anything special or unique about it or that specific dining experience — especially when you can visit a dozen other places within a few miles are ordering nearly the same items with only slightly different menu name.

What local restaurants quietly produce is a sense of community that chain restaurants cannot duplicate. I try to shop the small restaurants, coffee shops and bakeries around town with an understanding it's a show of confidence with investment in the local community. The additional fact that many of these business owners are often onsite greeting customers, talking to staff and engaged with their business only adds to the interest. For those Facebook savvy readers there's a page dedicated to Clarksville memories. Take a few moments and browse the references about businesses, houses and restaurants built by locals. Isn't it disappointing to think of Clarksville children only having childhood memories of corporate restaurants, Walmart’s, generic retail stores, gas, etc.?

The chain restaurants corporate offices understand these concerns originating from communities nationwide. It's one of the reasons corporations are working hard to capitalize on our desires for comfort foods. And btw --- that "homemade" apple pie at Cracker Barrel? It was most likely pulled straight from the 3rd or 4th freezer that month after being bulk produced at a factory. Enjoy!

We could actually learn a thing or two from locally owned dining options at our regional neighbors in Nashville, Memphis and even Evansville. The Clarksville MSA population now exceeds 325k people. It's such an absurd number for those of us with long memories, isn't it?! In the end, we now have the numbers and resources to better supporting local businesses with our growing population.

It's about time we stepped up to be accountable for community and work harder to continue developing greater Clarksville's growing reputation.