Chili's? Applebee's? Ruby Tuesday? All that homogeneity leaves us cold.

A Chili's Effect 

Chili's? Applebee's? Ruby Tuesday? All that homogeneity leaves us cold.

One of the things I like about Grace, a Bistro on the Edge (see review) is its iconoclastic quality -- it doesn't look like any other restaurant in the city. That may scare some customers away, because we've all grown somewhat comfortable with the homogeneous quality of corporate restaurant interiors. But is that really comfort -- or oblivion?

A few weeks ago, I was visiting a relative in a dreary little Indiana town and offered to take her to lunch. There aren't a lot of choices in this city, so I wasn't surprised when she decided on Chili's, which was new in town and kind of a big deal, located near the big shopping mall. I offered to take my relative to lunch the next day, too -- and she asked to go to Chili's again. And this is where the story gets weird.

I drove to the same shopping mall, parked in front of a free-standing red-brick building and escorted the frail, elderly lady into the familiar dining room. It wasn't until I sat down and opened the laminated, full-color menu and saw a couple of different items that I got confused.

"Have you changed the menu recently?" I asked the waitress. She shook her head, and I suddenly realized we were sitting in an Applebee's, not a Chili's. The restaurants are quite close to each other, the waitress told me. "You're not the first person to make that mistake," she said.

Recently, financial analyst Stephen Simpson wrote an article for motleyfool.com noting that another look-alike restaurant chain, Ruby Tuesday, had reported less than sparkling second-quarter sales. Simpson thinks one of the problems is that Ruby Tuesday's identity is almost indistinguishable from, he writes, "all the other buzzing neon bar-and-grills."

All of those cookie-cutter joints boast similar décor and casual-fare menus that are flaccid imitations of the original: the formerly fun and sexy concepts created by T.G.I. Friday's in 1965 and the Kansas City-based Houlihan's in 1972. Oddly, after letting its competition eat up its market share for years, Houlihan's is finally positioning itself away from its shameless imitators; Nations Restaurant News reports that the chain is now opening new prototype buildings with "display kitchens, patios, and a more dominant, walk-around bar."

Ruby Tuesday wants to step out from the pack, too, and will attempt to redefine itself with -- sigh -- hamburgers. The company is making much ado of "30 Famous Burgers" featuring "exotic" ingredients, such as a Mama Mia Burger with marinara sauce.

Now there's an original idea!

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