Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Tempe breakfast conundrum

No, that's not the name of a hippie jam band. That's just what I've been calling this phenomenon in my head that I experienced while on vacation. And I know that the following will be a specious argument based on anecdotal evidence and imperfect information, but I want to know why the hell it's so hard to find a place to eat breakfast in Tempe. In Tucson, there are literally hundreds of little restaurants, privately owned, that exist solely to serve you breakfast -- Don's, Robert's, Jerry Bob's, the Egg Connection, Bobo's, Wags, Molly G's, et cetera, et cetera. There are so many that one woman I knew when I lived there made it her quixotic quest to methodically rate the breakfast at each one on a number of often idiosyncratic criteria of her own devising in a meticulous little notebook she carried. She was already years into her task when I met her, and was nowhere near completion. In Don's, there was a chalkboard charting the restaurants that had failed in Tucson in the time that it had managed to survive; the names included such corporate-owned chain diners as Village Inn, JB's, Carrows, and Cocos.

Yet in Tempe, when Bonnie and I wanted to get something to eat in the morning, we patrolled back and forth along the blocks and surveyed shoppinng center after shopping center in vain. No breakfast places to be found, generally, and those chain restaurants -- the aforementioned Village Inn, IHOP, Denny's, we did find were so crowded that people were waiting outside for the privilege of eggs. So what is going on? One theory I came up with (based on nothing but personal prejudice and observation) is that this reflects the different demographics of Tucson and Phoenix. Tucson has more than its proportion of drifter-types, that's for sure -- just stand on Fourth Avenue and watch as the gritty desert rats walk by shaking their tambourines and dreadlocks or grooming their copious underarm hair. But it also has its population of stagnant semi-deadbeats, people who drift in to go to college or find like-minded misfits or hide from bill collectors and then stay on forever when they discover how cheaply one can live there. It's like the desert version of Hotel Caliifornia, check out anytime you like, but you never leave. Tucson has the illusion of enlightened, progressive culture without its accompanying expense, which makes it a magnet for every weirdo from West Texas to El Centro, and which means those who settle, stay, and develop off beat routines to accomodate them. Hence the pleathora of idiosyncratic breakfast restaurants, often owned and staffed by these selfsame oddballs. Phoenix's eastern suburbs, on the other hand, seem populated entirely by middle-managers relocated by their corporations to Phoenix's cheap and plentiful and tax-beneficial office space, and Mormons, whose suspicious swearing off of coffee and penchant for raising large families (and thus cooking at home) makes them enemies of the small breakfast place. And relocatees, wrenched from their comfort zone in New Jersey or Witchita or wherever, crave familiarity; hence their preference for chains, even when they prove inefficent and inconvenient (and lousy -- which you know if you've ever eaten a chicken-fried steak at Denny's). What results is one of those lose-lose situations that nonetheless make corporations happy: the prevelance of chain restaurants keep small proprietors out of the breakfast business, so no one steps in to correct the market and alleviate demand. So those looking for an idiosyncratic breakfast experience, or just an edible one, are thwarted, as are those looking for something comfortably familiar, who are now forced to wait unreasonably.

The mystery, then, is why the slack isn't picked up by the same corporate concerns already profiting. This may be a matter of profit margins. Breakfast is just simply not profitable enough to make it worth a corporations while to get into it wholeheartedly -- its a perfect business for the small-time proprietor: modest margins, smaller overhead, etc. So, contrary to the received wisdom of our nation's ideologists, the market fails the consumer here and the invisible hand satisfies no one.

1 comment:

  1. While it is true that Tempe has become quite corporate and lost a lot of it's small townness in it;s quest to make Mill ave the next big thing there are a few places to eat breakfast that are fantastic and not at all a Denny's.

    Wow that was the longest god damn sentence i have written in a while.