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Apparently, I'm Killing Olive Garden

Borrowing the term from Iliza Shlesinger, I’m an elder millennial. Born in 1984, I’m on the cusp of a generation on which we’ve pinned a lot of the world’s newest problems. If you take the mainstream media at face value, we’re ending homeownership, we’ve murdered the music industry, we’re killing cable television, and now we are having too few babies. (I suppose I’ll lift my three children Simba-on-Pride-Rock style in humble supplication to whoever is supposed to give us our gold stars for breeding.)

The internet is essentially a litany of tirades against my generation. Many of them are click-bait, a few of them tongue-in-cheek, and the vast majority of them take stats out of context for the sake of the narrative. The media churns out Op-Eds of people who don’t want or are unable to understand the younger generations. Nevertheless, they compete for our attention and fickle click habits.

Personally, I’m neither angry nor offended. Complaining about kids these days is the natural progression of passing the torch. Being in that elder spot, I found myself complaining about the next, yet unnamed crop of humans the other day. We get older, our views change, we complain about how young’ uns are mucking stuff up.

Gen X’ers were going to end the planet with their grunge and anger according to Baby Boomers. Ask the Silent Generation, and they’d say that Baby Boomers don’t understand the value of a hard day’s work. The Golden Generation could not fathom the promiscuity and forwardness of the Silent Generation. There are always growing pains. And everyone feels they have it worse than the generation before wherein criticism is involved.

However, millennials seem to be catching a whole lot of “death sentence” proclamations. Google “Millennials are killing” and the results are many and varied. My favorite version of crowd-sourced industricide is against chain restaurants. I’ll gleefully and cheerily dance on the graves of Applebees and Olive Garden.

I live in a little town just south of one of Oklahoma’s university towns. There is one noodle shop not too far from the heart of the university that is life-changing; Victoria’s: The Pasta Shop. They serve beautifully golden hand-pulled noodles with the perfect al dente chew coated with gently seasoned sauces. Nothing too strong or loud — you’d lose the subtle richness of the pasta. It would make an Italian grandmother weep with pride; a glorious pile of heaven on a plate.

My mouth is watering as I type.

The locally-owned shop has been noodling and saucing for over three decades, a very long reign for a restaurant in a college town. It is even more impressive for a place whose entire menu fits on one page with not a single morsel of beef in sight. Oklahoma is a cattle state. Beef is a way of life here. And yet, Victoria’s is so good with the pasta and sauce; no one cares no cows were harmed in the making of their meal. Just a little dose of cream offered peacefully in the name of a buttery bechamel.

They’ve found their part of the market and dug in with great success. Victoria’s has made camp in a little hole in the wall, sneering for thirty-some-odd years in the face of the corporate machines like Olive Garden and Carrabba’s.

Sure the chains have the limitless marketing budgets, they carefully research menu options and employ an army professional chef/chemists. Each morsel is designed for maximum crowd appeal. Each piece of wall art is methodically chosen to be completely ignorable. The chains can assembly-line patrons from starving to stuffed at an alarming rate.

But Victoria’s and other stay-power, little-guy eateries have the exact opposite resources. They work with grassroots marketing, whatever they feel like making that day, and wild kitchen experiments born of love and a fundamental understanding that this generation craves uniqueness. Millennials go to tiny, local-owned shops like Victoria’s as much for the food as the experience. And the more unique that experience, the happier we millennials are.

We don’t expect every location of Victorias to offer a carbon copy of each dish. If we’re honest, we’ll probably be a little disappointed if there is more than one Victoria’s in the hipster-iest parts of our hearts.

Somewhere between Gen Xers and Millennials, a fundamental shift occurred in what we expect or hope for in life. Baby Boomer and Gen Xers enjoyed the uniformity of experiences. The spread of chains allowed everyone to feel special, equally valued, and their dollar equally powerful, regardless of location. Reliability, predictability, and formulaic expectations were the key to success during the rise of chain restaurants in the 1970s, 80s, & 90s.

George Ritzer, in his essay The Globalization of Nothing, stated this. …Globalization tends to involve the spread of nothing through the world…By nothing, we mean (largely) empty forms that are centrally concieved and controlled and relatively devoid of distinctive content.

Walking into an Olive Garden in Beijing was going to look, sound, smell, feel, and taste exactly like walking into an Olive Garden in Des Moines. The corporate chain and others like them specialized in creating the universal expectation of nothing special. That was oddly comforting. It was home without the dishes and a few recipes that you don’t want to have to bother with in your own kitchen.

However, millennials want to imagine we’ve partaken in a wholly unique experience, a limited-edition life event. We can humble brag about this new treasure we discovered to our friends, family, and 30k of our closest social media followers. It becomes a goal to collect unique experiences rather than share universal ones.

Hence, we’re killing the globalized nothingness of chain restaurants. With so much vacuum available to us elsewhere, my generation is reaching the end of our tolerance of metered expectation. We’re getting a lot of nothing from our ever more expensive college degrees. There’s nothing for us in the housing market. Pensions are of a bygone era, and 401Ks are hit and miss for us. Thus our retirements look like nothing.

The millennial tendency to “kill stuff” isn’t a stick it to the man mentality. It’s adorable how badly the Gen Xers really want us to join them in that quest. It’s not a “change for the sake of change” notion.

I’ll give in to the idea that my generation is a little gung-ho for changing stuff.

I’ll even admit that sometimes we get the cart a little ahead of the horse when it comes to solutions. We know things need to change, but we haven’t figured out how just yet. It makes our rallies and amusing signs a little less poignant from time to time. According to the secret Snapchat every millennial communicates on, we’re working on it.

Millennials are to the point that we’re getting demanding. Someone, anyone, has to offer us something. And if it’s chain restaurants that catch the flack, well break out the forks, metal straws, and reusable cups, kids. We’re going to end this nothingness trend here and now. I’m okay with my role in ending bland, corporate-tested food. Because killing corporate chain restaurants is a matter of heart, mind, and tongue. It’s work of a higher calling— the work of culinary, gastronomic heroes.

Olive Garden, you had a good run. Your food was predictably okay. But it’s time to tie a napkin to one of those once-famous breadsticks and wave your white flag. To quote Fall Out Boy “Thanks for the memories, even if they weren’t so great.”


1 Comment

Jennifer C. Einolf
Jennifer C. Einolf
Nov 03, 2022

I really enjoyed this piece. Could you please post the link to the secret Snapchat? As an Xer, I am keen to know what's going on. Snide aside, I think you captured an essential point that the Nothing news outlets (also seeking sameness and consistency in order to serve up chemically balanced, appealing tidbits of happenings) have missed. It isn't about killing things. It's about finding a thing that still has a whiff of something attached to it. And some of us Xers are busy looking for something as well.

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