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April 25, 2007

Richard Florida

Fast Food Geography

« Update to April Fool's | Main | The Real Cost of Education »


I'm a huge burger lover myself, but this map from Business Week shows a clear pattern. It's based on a survey of fast food consumption 62 markets by restaurant consultant Sandelman & Associates of fast food consumption.  The Sunbelt is the fast-food capitol, with rates in some places double New York, Boston, Seattle and elsewhere.

The story is here.  While you're at it have a look at sociologist  Zach Neal's terrific article on the geography of restaurants.

Any thoughts on what lies behind this pattern?


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Off the top of my head, two things come to mind: culture and highways (local demand and traveler demand). The SE regions have been historically linked to high obesity rates, so perhaps the culture has a propensity for eating fast food (cause or effect here?). These regions also have a number of major highways through them. The NE and NW regions don't have the major highways through them, and, historically have healthier lifestyles overall.

The Neal article is quite interesting. From personal experience, I've enjoyed reading the "Best of" city poll results- great tool for understanding a region and the restaurant market. It's always good to see favorite restaurants of various Neal "types" locally-owned and reflecting the the city's authentic regional "flavor". While the presence of "Haute Cuisine" may indicate one thing, good food (at different price points)which satisfies more than your palate and appetite may indicate quite another dynamic of a particular place.


Per capita income and education levels?


I live in Greenville NC and I am truly shocked. Personally, I try not to eay Fast food when ever possible, trying to support local, independent, mom & pop places. But there aren't many in town to choose from. Especially the cheap and fast variety. It doesn't seem like people eat that much fast food around town, but I guess there are alot of them.

For god's sake the population is only 70,000. Maybe it s skewed by the large university we have (Go Pirates!).

I can't read the full article since I'm not a Business Week Subscriber but I did Google the company that did the report and you can download the full thing. I noticed we were one of the smallest markets in the study, alons with the town in Texas which is also at the top of the list. I wonder if that fact affects the results. We certainly aren't what I would classify as urban, lacking the amenities that other cities in the state enjoy.

If anyone could send me the full article I'd be appreciative.

One historic tidbit, Greenville was home to the first Hardee's restaurant, which would become a national chain.

It makes me want to start a sandwich/deli restaurant that fills the void for fast, cheap healthy food. This report will serve as my market research. Any financial backers out there?

Steven S.

Over the last five years, my wife has been in the process of class-switching from southern-bred Army brat Wal*Mart cashier to early-thirties hipster consistently Dean's list Sociology grad student. What's been interesting is watching how her food tastes have changed. While she still eats fast food (though almost solely due to convenience), *what* types of fast-food (and foods in general) that she's eaten have changed.

John Whiteside

Cars are a big part of it. Fast food places are very much geared to people who are driving around.

Education and income? Then why would you see a city like Dallas, filled with educated professionals earning good money, eating lots of fast food? Hmm, could it be that coastal elitism again? :)


I live in Columbia, SC so I may have some insight into this. Since I am originally from Chicago and have lived near DC, hopefully I can pull this off without sounding like a so-called "blue-state elitist":

- Fast food, particularly the burger-and-fry joints, closely mimic traditional Southern cooking in terms of high fat/calorie content (at least compared to Northern cooking, which is less fried and more influenced by ethnic/immigrant foods). Deep fried food sustained Southerners for generations because it provided cheap calories to fuel a largely agricultural/rural/outdoor economy and lifestyle, and later more industrial ones due to textile mills, etc. In hot and humid climates, this was a benefit. Those calores burned up quick. Former Ark. Gov. Mike Huckabee, who lost a lot of weight to save his health & life, has discussed this aspect of Southern food habits (I believe he covers this in his book).

- Now that more sedentary occupations located in air-conditioned buildings, from everything to Wal-Mart greeters to office park execs, those same "cheap calories" are not as healthy. Coupled with highway-oriented Sunbelt sprawl development (which DOES have its benefits despite traffic, environmental, and long-term quality of life issues), the low cost and convenience factor makes fast food a more compelling choice.

- Northern cities have relatively large swaths of dense urban and first-ring suburban development which make fast food joints, even if they are somewhat common, less "easy" to get too. Plus there are other, relatively cheap options. It's not so much having a Dean & Deluca nearby (where prices wouldn't be competitive anyways), but just having say, a cost-competitive grocer with decently-priced produce. Greek grocers in the Chicago area and Korean grocers around DC provide very, very good facilities, for example. Outside perhaps Atlanta, you will not find many such places in the Southeast.

- Education may part of the reason, but I have seen relatively well-educated folks down here regularly eat at Bojangles (an NC-based chicken & biscuit chain).

- Another cultural imprint may be a relative reluctance to try something new & different. Even Mexican restaurants (which are EVERYWHERE in the Southeast, not just the Southwest) are pretty much the same all over - they have nearly identical menus whether its in Greensboro, NC or Columbia or Jacksonville. When I recently travelled to San Diego and went into a modest roadside Mexican restaurant, it was like a different world (such as having mole sauce, probably considered "too exotic" for the typical Southeastern restaurant).

- Do not underestimate Southerners' relative exuberance regarding low prices (although this can be selective depending on the particular metro or other factors - super-giant McMansions are celebrated in Dallas but aren't in Columbia, SC), regardless of education level or income. I don't mean this to be elitist, but it is an observation. Aesthetics and other factors are often overlooked to get a better "deal". This would explain why here in greater Columbia, 5 new Wal-Mart SuperCenters are being built but only 1 new Target. I also don't think it's a coincidence that the South is home to Wal-Mart, Books-a-Million, and Southwest Airlines, while the North is home to Target, Borders/B&N, and jetBlue. Some more urban-oriented residents here ask, why can't we get a store like Pottery Barn, even in the local upscale mall or high-end suburban neighborhood? I respond by saying there aren't enough people to *willingly* unload higher dollars REGULARLY to sustain these stores, even if they have the financial means to. You can pull it off in Charlotte and Raleigh, perhaps even in Myrtle Beach or Charleston, SC (large upscale tourist & transplant element there), but not in Columbia or Greenville. There are exceptions (we do have a Williams-Sonoma in town), but it is harder to profitably place such stores here (part of this is also due to absolute metro population numbers, not just income, too).

- There is a more short-term orientation in the region, which may put a higher value on low price and high calores rather than a longer-term orientation on better value, balanced food characteristics, and sustainable healthy habits. Similarly, housing is also seen more as a commodity rather than a long-term investment (which again fuels sprawl - many folks have continuously jumped to the next "hot" exurb, which in turn leaves a lot of middle-aged suburbia decaying).

I think that should be enough for now. I'd like to read other perspectives as well.

Ryan Zelnio

Zach Neal touches on this a bit in his paper but one of the things that most struck me is the linkage towards creative areas and low scores in which he noticed the link between creative jobs and urbane oasis and with manufacturing jobs and McCulture deserts. (table 4)

An important aspect of this is that fast food places are not very sociable and for many in creative occupations, they view lunch as a time to sit down and socialize (i.e. have power lunches). These people tend to have very flexible schedules that allow for one to spend an hour or more at a nice restaurant. In contrast, manufacturing (blue-collar) employed people tend to have strict time periods in which to eat and therefor are not able to spend socializing during lunch.


Also look at the Excel table for more intriguing data:


The most interesting contrast I saw was the cities with the highest drive-through share vs. cities with the highest carry-out share. The former is dominated by Southeastern cities, the latter is dominated northern ones. This may be reflection of car-oriented vs. pedestrian-oriented urban development patterns. Again, this points to a lack of cheap, easy-to-walk-to alternatives in many Sunbelt cities. It may also point to eating being looked at as a commodity vs. an experience or opportunity to socially interact in more "creative" regions. FWIW, my co-workers and I in Columbia do make it a point to eat out for lunch togehter once a week, even if it is Chili's. But the vast array of fast-food joints, including not just national chains but various local/regional ones as well, is undeniable here.

Michael Wells

The pattern of eating take out food may be similar across the country, but what people eat is different. We regularly get take out Thai, Italian and deli food when we work late and don't cook. I often have quick lunches at a cheap Mexican place, a Syrian Gyro cart, a Chinese cafeteria and yes, a (non-chain) burger place. But Portland is one of Neal's Urbane Oases, so it's pretty easy to find a variety. Coincidentally the Portland region has Burgerville, a healthy fast food place with sustainable beef, cage free eggs, etc.

In the last year or so I've been in Nashville, Atlanta and Tampa. Nashville and Atlanta had high end restaurants but I didn't see much ethnic variety in the downtowns. I take it back, good Soul Food in Atlanta, but that's close to basic Southern for a Northerner. Tampa had good Cuban, but otherwise nada. I wonder how much this will change with immigration patterns?



Here's a hint for finding ethnic restaurants in the more sprawled-out-Sunbelt cities: you gotta go to the suburbs, not the downtowns. See, in places like Atlanta and even DC, the waves of immigrant settlement didn't start in earnest until the 1970s and 1980s, so they largely settled in the suburbs (these decades were also the low-points for in-town urban living - who would go further east of, say, 12th St NW in DC circa 1985?). There is no history of ethnic neighborhoods in these cities like NY, Chicago, and San Francisco. You want good Korean in DC? Go to Annandale, VA. You want good Korean in Atlanta? Go to Gwinnett County. Northern Virginia has grown so much that even the newer exurban developments have ethnic eateries, like the Indian restaurant Rangoli in South Riding (in Loudoun County southwest of Dulles Airport). Anything "ethnic" in these downtowns is going to cater to a very upscale yuppie customer base, whereas out in the 'burbs you're more likey to see a mix of customers native to those countries and professionals from the surroudning subdivisions and office parks.

And that is one of the lesser-known facts about where immigrant families are living nowadays. What is more a more "authentic" diverse experience? Living in relatively lily-white Lincoln Park in Chicago and going to an Indian restaurant where the only other Indians are on the staff? Or living in Schaumburg in the northwest suburbs where your fellow customers, neighbors, playmates, classmates, etc. are more likely to be Indian? While there are still a strong Indian, Korean, Mexican, and other ethnic business core in the city along certain streets, there is now a large, established based of such ethnic businesses across the suburbs. In the newer sunbelt cities, such ethnic businesses are almost exclusively in the 'burbs, because of more recent immigration patterns and relatively smaller, if not weaker, urban cores.

Michael Wells


Great, thank you! I'm going to be in DC in the fall and will remember that. You're right, I've been in downtowns for conferences or meetings.

The immigrants to the burbs is universal. Metro Portland's foreign born population tripled in the 1990's and the suburbs got 5 of 6 immigrants. Perhaps because of Portland's lively downtown there are good ethnic restaurants here too. Some of the best are actually foodcarts, which an immigrant family can afford to set up with little capital.

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