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You don't have to settle for McDonald's on a cross-country roadtrip anymore

Robert Niles
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Published: July 27, 2013 at 8:38 AM (MST)
When my family drove around the country on summer vacations when I was a child, we'd inevitably end up stopping for lunch and dinner at chain restaurants, such as McDonald's. It's not that we loved McDonald's, but that was a brand name we knew. Rather than take our chances with a local, mom-and-pop restaurant we didn't know, we stuck with the consistency of the chains, even if that meant missing out on some really great local restaurants.

I grew up to study statistics in college, and my professors taught me this attitude was called being "risk averse." We'd rather settle for a mediocre experience than take the chance on finding a better one, if taking that chance meant we might get stuck with something worse. And we weren't alone. McDonald's and other fast-food chains — from Stuckey's in the 1970s to Starbucks in the 21st century — built national empires by appealing to travelers who simply wanted something familiar.

Today, when I drive across the country with my family, we never stop at McDonald's. After reading Eric Schlosser's excellent book, Fast Food Nation, I haven't eaten at a MickeyD's in more than 12 years. But we try to avoid other big fast-food chains, as well. It's not that I'm less risk averse than my parents, as much as my ego might lead me to want to believe that. Technology's changed the risk equation when it comes to dining on the road.

Chalk up one more way that the Internet and social media are disrupting our economy. With crowdsourced review sites such as Urbanspoon providing reviews for tens of thousands of restaurants around the country, from locals and travelers alike, I have access to information about those mom-and-pop restaurants that were a mystery to out-of-towners 20 years ago. The Internet's enabling of more-narrowly focused niche media has empowered sites such as Serious Eats, which offers easily-accessible, professional-quality reviews of interesting local restaurants in dozens of cities around the country. Social media and niche media collide to fuel the popularity of cable TV shows such as those on the Food Network that profile locally-owned restaurants.

Lobster roll
There's plenty of lobster on the Lobster Roll from Red's Eats in Maine. ($17.99)

All this takes a lot of the risk out of the decision to look beyond McDonald's, Starbucks, and the like when we're on the road. On our most recent trip, we've enjoyed places we'd never have found before the Internet brought consumers together to share information, such as Lexie's Joint in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Red's Eats and the Snow Squall Inn in Wiscasset, Maine, The Range Cafe in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and The Thinking Cup in Boston.

Doing this research requires a bit of work, of course, but that task's getting easier with each summer vacation. Google's bought Zagat and is now incorporating that restaurant data into Google Maps and its "what's nearby" search results. Geo-coded data in mobile apps help connect you with top-rated restaurants in your area, as you travel. As accessing reliable information about the complete range of restaurant options on the road becomes easier, that will leave mediocre chains such as McDonald's to serve lower-information (and, correspondingly, lower-income) customers. So chains won't go away, but they won't be able to use consumers' lack of information about alternatives as a way to capture market share, as they did in the past.

They certainly won't be capturing us anymore!

Robert Niles also can be found at http://www.themeparkinsider.com

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