As more chains hit the city could mom and pop be in trouble?

IHOP recently opened the doors at its 230

IHOP recently opened the doors at its 230 Varick St.. (Nancy Borowick) (Credit: IHOP recently opened the doors at its 230 Varick St.. (Nancy Borowick))

Out with mom and pop, in with Slurpees and Grand Slams.

An influx of chain restaurants and food shops over the past few years has some New Yorkers decrying a trend of “suburbanization,” as national brands like 7-Eleven, IHOP, Starbucks, Subway and more open in increasing numbers and threaten to push out the mom-and-pop shops that have defined the city for generations.

In 2012, the number of chains here jumped 2.4% from 2011, according to a study from the Center for an Urban Future, marking the fifth year in a row of an increase in national chains in the city. And with a Denny’s slated to open downtown later this year, two new recent IHOP franchises in downtown Manhattan and many new 7-Elevens on the way, some New Yorkers have had enough.

“There are way too many. They’re part of a larger trend of suburbanization that’s been going on in the city” largely over the last decade or so, said Jeremiah Moss, who runs the blog Vanishing New York, which documents changes in the Big Apple.

“These are not one-of-a-kind businesses, they’re clones of each other, and they don’t feel like New York because they’re not of New York,” Moss said.

Chain invasion
The city last year had more than 7,190 chain stores — including, but not limited to, restaurants and food shops — with Manhattan having the highest concentration at 119 per square mile, compared with 113 per square mile in 2011. Dunkin’ Donuts is the biggest national chain here with 484 spots, according to the CUF study.

Experts point to a few reasons for the chain invasion, including the success of certain chains in the 1990s, the spike in suburban transplants and national brands seeing chances for expansion into the city.

“For a long time, national names were wary of New York, and they just didn’t open up here,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director for the CUF.

“But for the last 10 or 15 years, that’s really changed, [and] I think that there are a lot of New Yorkers that really do want the choice,” he added. “They might love independent businesses, but they do want a chance to eat at Chipotle from time to time.”

Bowles added that, especially in family-focused communities, chains are sometimes “relished,” including the opening of an Applebee’s in Bed-Stuy, which he said was a “victory for the community.”

Indeed, Catherine Hughes of Community Board 1, which represents the area Denny’s is set to open in, said chains have long thrived in New York.

“Chain restaurants have their place throughout the city, but they are not replacing unique one-of-a-kind restaurants in lower Manhattan,” Hughes said.
“Big chains like McDonald’s and Burger King have been part of the mix for a long time,” she said.

Community backlash
Still, chains are not always so warmly embraced in the communities they open in.
A grassroots group called No 7-Eleven formed last year to protest the opening of the convenience store, focusing on the East Village, whose “neighborhood feel” would be diminished by more 7-Elevens, a group representative said.

“The chain stores in New York City take away from the city’s character,” a representative said. “Anything special, unique or culturally significant in New York City is being pushed out and replaced with big brand names and predictable experiences the tourists and transients feel safe with.”

The chain, which has 32 stores in Manhattan and reportedly plans to open about 100 more, said “there is opportunity to grow more stores based on unmet demand,” and that the “vast majority of our stores in NYC [are] met with no opposition.”

Fernando Mateo, a spokesman for the Bodega Association of the U.S., said the city’s local bodegas aren’t overly threatened by the flood of 7-Elevens, as they generally offer the same products and are simply trying to get a “piece of high-volume markets.”

But the pressure on chains is persistent, and the expected Denny’s has seen its own share from residents, saying that it simply doesn’t fit with the area, according to
Zandy Hartig, who lives in the city, agreed with that sentiment, saying she much prefers independent spots over chains.

“I don’t see the point of chains when there are wonderful diners closing,” she said.
But Paul Cantor, 31, who lives in Staten Island and Chelsea, said that chains can offer what some independent restaurants can’t: a familiar feeling.

“They might be boring and lack character, but you can get the same thing in every store, every time,” he said. “There’s a lot of familiarity.”

Middle ground
But for all the predictions of a suburbanized city, the realistic future is likely somewhere between the two extremes, experts said.

“Even with the explosion in chains, we’re still a city of independent businesses,” said Bowles, of the CUF.

“I can’t foresee a day when most New Yorkers on a Friday night are going out to Denny’s or Olive Garden or Outback Steakhouse. I don’t think we’re there and I don’t think we’re gonna get there.”

But Moss of Vanishing New York said that if the expansion of national chains is not kept in check, the independent businesses that used to define the city could eventually be at risk.

“These small, unique places were part of the New York culture, the music, the literary scenes, the city’s fabric,” Moss said. “God help us if Denny’s and 7-Eleven become part of the artistic culture.”


By the numbers

Manhattan -- 32
Bronx --10
Brooklyn -- 21
Queens -- 40
Staten Island -- 9

Dunkin’ Donuts
Manhattan -- 22
Bronx -- 68
Brooklyn -- 120
Queens -- 142
Staten Island -- 32

Olive Garden
Manhattan -- 2
Brooklyn – 1

Red Lobster
Manhattan -- 1
Bronx -- 1
Brooklyn -- 1
Queens -- 1

Manhattan -- 4
Bronx -- 5
Brooklyn -- 4
Queens -- 5
Staten Island -- 1

Starbucks, Subway – 100s each


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