When you really stop and think about it, it’s amazing that a Big Mac in Miami tastes exactly the same as a Big Mac in Seattle. When you go to a chain restaurant, be it a McDonald’s or a Red Lobster, you know exactly what you’re going to get, because the food is consistent across all locations, right down to the number of cherry tomatoes on the salad. The question is, how do chain restaurants pull this off?
For chains, consistency is key, because with consistency comes dependability, and with dependability comes customer loyalty. Chain restaurants are also eateries that many travelers consider to be “safe” options, especially when they’re in a new city where they’re not familiar with the dining scene. That’s why tourists in New York, arguably the best food town in the country, flock to chains like Olive Garden and Applebee’s even though there’s an endless array of better dining options; the chains are safe, dependable, and don’t require much thought.
In order to ensure consistency, the process starts at the top, with recipe development and ingredient sourcing. If a chain is going to add an item to their menu, they need to make sure that all of the ingredients are available, which in some cases can mean buying entire farms. McDonald’s isn’t able to add quinoa to their menu, for example, because the current supply is simply too low.
Once all the ingredients are sourced and purchased, and recipes are finalized, it’s time to implement the change. The vast majority of chains will give new products a trial run at a handful of locations, not only to see if the product sells, but also to make sure that the item is easy enough to prepare that employees can be quickly trained in making the item and that it’s consistent every time. One of the main reasons why Shake Shack abandoned their hand-cut fries was because “ultimately, hand-cut fries introduced inconsistency,” Zach Koff, Shake Shack’s VP of Operations, told us.
Every chain has a centralized distribution network that delivers food to each outpost, as well as warehouses in strategic locations that store everything that’s needed, from the cleaning supplies to the fry oil. Every location gets the same exact products, and once those items arrive, very little in the way of preparation is left to the operators or cooks. In fast-food restaurants, items are simply heated and assembled instead of cooked (except for the burger patties, which arrive raw and are cooked for the exact same amount of time across the board). At casual dining chains like Applebee’s, most of the food is mass-produced and frozen, then shipped to the restaurants and stored in walk-in freezers. The food is re-heated instead of cooked from scratch; recipes are developed by corporate chefs, right down to the amount of salt used, and any variation can be disastrous.
Each menu item comes with its own set of instructions that cooks are trained to follow very carefully; most come with photos of what each dish is supposed to look like. How many wings come in an order, how many cherry tomatoes go on the salad, how many slices of bacon and cheese go on a burger… These types of rules not only ensure consistency, but also affect the chain’s bottom line. If one restaurant puts two slices of cheese on every burger instead of one, then they’ll obviously go through twice as much cheese as they should.
Using the proper serving utensils is also crucial to maintaining consistency in the kitchen. Every bowl of soup needs to contain the same amount, meaning that the same-size ladle needs to be used at every location. If the salsa with your nachos comes in a small plastic cup, that’s so every portion is exactly the same size. If you order a deli sandwich at a chain, you can be sure that, before the meat goes on the bread, it’s weighed out to the exact specifications. Again, nothing is left to chance.
So when you order that fried chicken sandwich at Wendy’s or that Tuscan Spinach Dip at TGI Friday’s, don’t expect the process to be the same as in a non-chain restaurant’s kitchen. While the end result might taste as if it came from your average neighborhood spot (at least, that’s what they’re striving for), in terms of actually preparing the dish, the process couldn’t be more different.