Opinion: why chain restaurants are embarrassing Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan, this is why we can’t have nice things. We support and promote mediocrity.

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photo courtesy of Mike Mozart via Flickr.

I nearly spit out my supper when a story about The Olive Garden opening a franchise in the province made the local evening news. Then, I went on Facebook and saw a radio station’s joyous post, with thousands of likes, about the overpriced chain.

Remember when Taco Bell (barf) had lineups so long that Saskatoon police had to control traffic? Remember when Prairie Harvest Café had to shutter the doors of its fantastic and 100 per cent locally-sourced restaurant in 2017? Or when Flip had to close its downtown Regina spot and when Nosh followed suit earlier this year in Saskatoon?

This is why we can’t have nice things Saskatchewan.

We are willing to spend our hard-earned dollars on restaurants serving premade, packaged processed food, dressed up with lots of salt and sugar-laden sauces to make us think we’re eating quality ingredients. And don’t forget the free breadsticks. Whatta deal!

If only people got this excited when Homestead Baravin opened in Regina in February... It’s a delightful wine bar, serving seasonal, from-scratch and affordably priced food, prepared by actual chefs.

And where are the stories about Odla, soon to be open in Saskatoon, which will be one of the province’s few farm-to-table restaurants?

After Taco Bell caused those insane lineups, David Williams, an associate professor of marketing at the Edwards School of Business, told Global News that fast food and franchise restaurants appeal to people because “it’s fast, it’s cheap, it’s convenient and they know what they’re getting.”

And that is exactly the problem, Saskatchewan. Cheap and fast and convenient has somehow become our go-to.

Saskatoon chef Christie Peters says it’s ridiculously difficult for independent places to compete with chains. She and her partner Kyle Michael own two of the only farm-to-table restaurants in the province, growing their own produce and buying holistically-raised meat from area farmers.

“Chain restaurants have buying power that independents just can’t match,” she says.

“They are often buying pre-made packaged products and poor quality, factory-farmed meat and selling it at cheaper prices than an independent can. They also have a large budget for advertising.”

On the outset, this could all look like a privileged plea pushing people towards the artisanal – a category of food not everyone can afford. But my outrage goes so much deeper than wishing we could all eat locally-sourced food and support the chefs trying to do the same. But food is the foundation of health. And if you think eating subpar food is doing anything good for you and your children, you’re sorely mistaken. Saskatchewan’s obesity rates lead the country and cases of type-2 diabetes rates climb each year. We have the highest rates of childhood and youth obesity in Canada. If that’s not a staggeringly scary--and entirely preventable--statistic, I don’t know what is.

Of course, the issue involves much more than just chain restaurants. It’s an issue that involves food sovereignty, especially for those living in poverty, in remote locations and in urban food deserts.

And let it be acknowledged that an independent restaurant does not always guarantee a good experience. And most independent restaurants in Saskatchewan do not source all of their ingredients locally or they would never be able to stay in business. It’s expensive to grow food here and it’s expensive to pay a living wage to agricultural workers. That’s why food shipped here from Central America is so cheap: farmers are paid next to nothing. There is always a cost behind cheap food.

So, I encourage you to do a little research. You research your doctor, your mechanic and your kid’s daycare right? Get curious about the food that’s fuelling your body and mind, too. You have the power to support a food system that will benefit Saskatchewan. The more money you spend at the farmgate store, the local farmers’ market, on a CSA subscription, on value-added prairie food products, at local grocers stocking Saskatchewan ingredients and at independent restaurants doing their best to support Saskatchewan farmers; the more you will help build a local food system to be proud of.

If you don’t know where to start, please message me. I’m happy to point you in the right direction.