Food and retail: An appeal to authenticity

This Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017 file photo shows a Dunkin' Donuts sign at a store in Hialeah, Fla. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

Before my current job, I worked at a Dunkin’ Donuts for a bit over a year. Even after being apart for a year, there are still certain aspects of the job that remain fresh in my mind: fumbling with the nightly stock list, washing a seemingly endless supply of coffee pots and sandwich-making materials, bonding with my coworkers over ridiculous customers. I also remember the various holidays for which we would halfheartedly decorate the storefront. For example, we did put up a Christmas tree, but we could not stray too far from the orange and pink themes of the store in the decoration or otherwise.

On some level, all of this unsettles me. There was always a disconnect between the workers and the franchise. On one end, the employees themselves have humanity and character all to themselves. My experience working at one Dunkin’ was vastly different from my experience covering a shift at a different store. However, all interactions and processes have to be coated in a veneer of professionalism and even roboticism.

This difference permeates through all avenues of franchises. Greetings with customers are often rehearsed. Upselling and suggestions are enforced. The whole system of retail and fast food service is specifically chosen by corporate, in order to maximize profits. To me, this all feels contrived. Optimization is a worthy goal, but the end result leaves me with only a sense of insincerity.

The appeal of chain restaurants is not lost on me. I have plenty of friends who value going to a place, getting their usual, expected order, and getting out. The location and atmosphere is secondary to the product they are actually paying for. While this is entirely valid, it denies a bit of fun from the entire interaction. Not to be too masochistic, but I enjoy being disappointed sometimes, if only for the newfound information and story to tell. If not disappointed, I am able to be pleasantly surprised by something markedly different and better than the mass-produced alternative.

While on the other side of the employee-customer relationship, I often compare my experiences working at Dunkin’ Donuts with my outings to various restaurants. My favorite example of odd occurrences at non-franchises was when I visited a café during off hours. As I was the only one in the place, the entirety of the staff decided it was time for them to eat. So, they put together a few tables and brought out a feast. It was bizarre and unexpected, but more than anything, it was authentic.

Local places are more authentic for more reasons than just a casual atmosphere. Since Dunkin’ Donuts relies on the recognition of its logo to entice people, any public showing of the business must have the two D’s slapped on somewhere. Single storefronts are able to better integrate with their community because they are not constrained by such strict appearance guidelines.

Despite my praise, I am under no false pretenses here. Of course, local places are often just as profit-driven as their franchise counterparts. Chain employees are also just as human as local ones. However, by stripping away the chain of command to answer to, local businesses are able to make more personalized decisions, even ones too drastic for a chain to ever approach. I appreciate the closeness and specialization that are allowed as a result.

I understand the benefit of chain stores. Some people like having a reliable, unchanging order available to them, regardless of location. There is less disappointment and less surprise. For some people, being able to get the exact same coffee in Storrs, New York City and even abroad is just what was wanted. Personally, though, I do not mind disappointment once in a while if it means I can experience new things.


Peter Fenteany is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at peter.fenteany@uconn.edu.