Last week we ended up in sandstorm as we drove out of Death Valley on the last day of our US road trip. We were hungry and so we decided to drive off the road into an industrial area. It turned out to be a town called Trona. The town seemed quite desolate and well past its heydays. The industrial plant looked rusty and falling apart. To our surprise we saw a small diner appearing from the dust; Esparza restaurant.

Esparza is a pleasant place with high quality food at a reasonable price and a great owner. They are making fresh salsas and having amazing burritos. The owner of the place told us that Trona used to be a growing town. At it’s peak there were many more people living there than there are now. “The plant”, as they call it , is the main source of income in Trona.

In the nineties the plant changed hands three times and is currently owned by Indian Private Equity firm Sun Capital Partners. All those changes influenced the company and the jobs in the town. Incidentally giving some hope, but bottom line, as the owner of the place said: “people get fired”.

If I look at it, it seems that this place will be faded away by the sand in the coming 10 years. My prediction is that the plant will prove to be unprofitable in the coming 4 years. The acquiring company takes over the accounts and will continue to produce in “more cost effective” and “more favourly regulated” areas. The plant slowly breaks down while the people flee from the town to more profitable areas.

The whole situation made me wonder, why is there such a nice restaurant in Trona with such helpful and open people? And why is that so hard to find a personal and high quality place in larger towns?

This is my take on it.

Trona has 1800 inhabitants, which makes it too small for the large chains to enter town. There is no McDonalds, SubWay and Burger King. This gives soul to the town as it comes more down to the individual contribution of people and the community they have. While speaking to the other guests in the diner that came dropping in slowly, they are explicitly happy they aren’t McDonaldized. 

To put it in perspective we visited Farmington, New Mexico, with 45000 inhabitants which just had the standard selection of fast food chains. There are 10’s of them, Subway, McDonalds, Burger King. But no “Esparza” to be found.

My take on this is that small entrepreneurs get pushed out of the market by the large chains. Why? Margins are low in fresh food restaurants like Esparza. Margins are high in fast food. Small margins and high energy input of owners, means you make little money. 50K is Farmington means you live in a shit hole house, 50K in Trona buys you a 300 sq. feet house, as the owner of Esparza did.

Next to that barriers to entry are higher in Farmington as there are already 12 (fast food) places to eat and real estate prices are higher. Mistakes are expensive, chances of success minimal and big chains are always there to help you set up “your own” McDonalds or Burger King to minimize your risk as an entrepreneur.

So it’s understandable that the things happen the way they do. From a perspective of large chemical corporations, from large restaurant chains, from individuals and from the entrepreneur it’s a logical flow.

The result is that many of the larger small towns are losing identity and become more and more chainified. I see that in the US and also back home in the Netherlands.

I am though happy to see that there are places, where prices are reasonable, people are open and the creativity of the individual can still make a difference. I find it most wondrous to find it in places where I least expect it like in Trona. 

Maybe I romanticize these kind of towns as it reminds me of my home town. But I see true value in these kind of places and hope they will continue to exist in a more and more chainified and standardized society.

Though I didn’t write this post thinking of marketing, it makes me wonder, don’t we see the same trend online? Isn’t this trend in cities metaphoric for online? 

Websites are also becoming more chainified, as we see in the current light of take-overs. People are spending more and more time in Apple, Facebook and Google ecosystems. Though a small site is only a click away, it might be hard for small players to stay unique while not being taken over or starving because of lacking income. Positive about the web though is that it’s easier than ever to start a website and that anybody in the world can access it 1 second afterwards.