A study by Maxim Massenkoff and Nathan Wilmers argues that “low-price full-service restaurants,” like Olive Garden or the Cheesecake Factory, are the third places in which rich and poor are most likely to rub shoulders. Using location data, they found that these low-price chain restaurants had more class integration than churches, schools, and independent bars and restaurants. Although Massenkoff and Wilmers steer clear of making forceful policy recommendations, they do seem to caution policymakers in cities like San Francisco and New York City that have passed regulations to curb an overabundance of chains:
Our results demonstrate that the places that contribute most to mixing by economic class are not civic spaces like churches or schools, but large, affordable chain restaurants and stores. Insofar as policy makers seek to increase exposure between different classes, they should pay attention to the role of firms in shaping class mixing.
It is not necessarily surprising that chain restaurants tend to be places where people of all classes mix. The very design of these restaurants is meant to appeal to the widest audience possible. Behold your local Cheesecake Factory. It is usually found in suburban shopping centers where land is cheap, such that the Factories are large and capable of holding all large numbers of customers. And of course, The Factory’s famously tome-like menu, which has everything from hamburgers to orange chicken to shrimp scampi, betrays the chain’s intention to serve as many different walks of life as possible.
But it is also worth considering that chains, even if they are designed to appeal to the largest audience possible, might be playing an outsized role in class integration. Research from City Observatory argues that chains tend to proliferate in more car-dependent cities. It is not entirely obvious why this is the case, but some theories suggest themselves. The typical car-dependent shopping center relies on “anchor stores,” well-known brands that can attract a sufficiently large enough pool of customers. Small, unknown businesses are at a distinct disadvantage in these spaces. Thus, to the extent that the typical American is driving to the Kroeger or Starbucks down the street, as opposed to stopping by the bodega or coffee shop at the corner, then it should come as no surprise that rich and poor are more likely to rub shoulders at chains.
Density zoning also limits the opportunities that rich and poor have for coming into contact. By excluding multi-family development in many neighborhoods, the less affluent are often de facto excluded from living in the same subdivisions as the more affluent. The sorts of neighborhoods in which rich and poor would have ample opportunity to bump into each other at local haunts interwoven into the fabric of the neighborhood simply don’t exist in much of America.
But it is worth considering how much “rubbing” is really occurring at these spots. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs explains how many people in her neighborhood in the West Village would leave their keys at the local deli:
In our family, for example, when a friend wants to use our place while we are away for a weekend or everyone happens to be out during the day… we tell such a friend that he can pick up the key at the delicatessen across the street. Joe Cornacchia, who keeps the delicatessen usually has a dozen or so keys at a time for handing out like this. He has a special drawer for them.
By contemporary standards, this is a shocking degree of trust that these acquaintances are placing in the deli owner. I would be shocked to learn that any similar arrangements exist at a chain establishment. Nor do I believe that rich and poor (or even people from the same classes) are sharing local gossip or getting to know each other at the Cheesecake Factory. At most, the shoulder rubbing is probably limited to the literal bumping of shoulders as one family enters and the other exits the Factory.
It would be interesting to where the rich and poor rub shoulders in locales with more options beyond chains, or in locales with less restrictive zoning. My hunch would be that we would see relatively more socializing among classes, and richer linkages at that, in cities with more density and more options beyond chains.