It’s easy to mock places like the Cheesecake Factory—restaurants that have brought chain production to complicated sit-down meals. But the “casual dining sector,” as it is known, plays a central role in the ecosystem of eating, providing three-course, fork-and-knife restaurant meals that most people across the country couldn’t previously find or afford. The ideas start out in élite, upscale restaurants in major cities. You could think of them as research restaurants, akin to research hospitals. Some of their enthusiasms—miso salmon, Chianti-braised short ribs, flourless chocolate espresso cake—spread to other high-end restaurants. Then the casual-dining chains reëngineer them for affordable delivery to millions. Does health care need something like this?
Big chains thrive because they provide goods and services of greater variety, better quality, and lower cost than would otherwise be available. Size is the key. It gives them buying power, lets them centralize common functions, and allows them to adopt and diffuse innovations faster than they could if they were a bunch of small, independent operations. Such advantages have made Walmart the most successful retailer on earth. Pizza Hut alone runs one in eight pizza restaurants in the country. The Cheesecake Factory’s major competitor, Darden, owns Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Red Lobster, and the Capital Grille; it has more than two thousand restaurants across the country and employs more than a hundred and eighty thousand people. We can bristle at the idea of chains and mass production, with their homogeneity, predictability, and constant genuflection to the value-for-money god. Then you spend a bad night in a “quaint” “one of a kind” bed-and-breakfast that turns out to have a manic, halitoxic innkeeper who can’t keep the hot water running, and it’s right back to the Hyatt.