The chain gang

March 09, 1993

Marylanders do not live by crabs alone. In fact, when it comes to eating, we can pack it away with the best of them, according to some national restaurateurs. The Chili's restaurant on Baltimore's Northern Parkway is among the top 10 in sales volume in the 260-unit chain; a smaller Chili's in Bel Air is in the top 25. Chi-Chi's in Timonium is fourth in sales in the 223-unit chain. And the Red Lobster that opened in White Marsh two months ago has been feeding 10,000 people a week!

Evening Sun staff writer Michael Dresser recent described how the Baltimore region -- awash in two-income households, but starved for time in food preparation -- has become increasingly attractive to chain restaurants, from Sfuzzi and Ruth's Chris Steak House in the city, to the Silver Diner in Towson, to others beyond the beltway.

Residents, in turn, find these restaurants popular because they're clean, casual, moderately priced and hospitable to children. For many diners they're a welcome middle ground between food too fast and food too fancy.

Yet this freedom of choice in dining is being diminished by Byzantine and often politically manipulated liquor laws. Many counties in Maryland restrict liquor licenses to one per operator; if a chain or a company that operates different chains wants to open a couple of restaurants, too bad. Baltimore County extends the limit to three licenses, but that means, for instance, that should General Mills open a third Red Lobster, it couldn't introduce its "Olive Garden" chain to the county.

Senators Clarence W. Blount and Larry Young of Baltimore have introduced a bill that would limit future operators from holding more than one liquor license in the entire state. What could be the purpose of that, except to appease existing tavern interests and skittish non-chain restaurateurs?

No one is looking to put the corner tavern or the mom-and-pop eatery out of business. In large part, these chain restaurants serve a family clientele that might not eat out otherwise. The chains provide greater choice, jobs and tax revenue.

As for concern over too many liquor licenses, these places are anything but gin mills; at Chili's, for instance, the bartender is required to advise the manager when a customer has ordered a third drink, to keep a handle on things.

On this wave of chain restaurants, people have been voting with their palates. Legislators intent on limiting choice for the sake of friends or contributors may be sadly misreading their constituents.

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