Dine-ins the new American melting pot

Dine-ins the new American melting pot

To time travel back to the 1960s simply step into an Olive Garden.

Booths at the chain restaurant, known for its surfeit of breadsticks, are lined with spotted upholstery. The sound of Frank Sinatra playing from old-school speakers evokes thoughts of salesmen in Chevrolets coming home to their darlings in the suburbs for supper.

But look carefully and you’ll find that the patrons more closely resemble today’s America. A nurse in scrubs scarfs down a post-shift meal behind a tattooed African-American duo on a date. A family of a dozen – the women in hijabs, the men in dress shirts – debates desserts as a lady with a gap in her front teeth fills up on unlimited salad and packs her pasta for tomorrow.

Customers enter an Olive Garden restaurant in Pittsburg, California.Credit: Bloomberg

The woefully inauthentic Tuscan joint is an all-American favourite. New research shows that its 1800 branches also serve a social purpose.

Maxim Massenkoff of the Naval Postgraduate School and Nathan Wilmers of MIT Sloan School of Management used mobile data to track where millions of Americans spend their time. By matching people’s movements to socioeconomic data on where they live, they were able to see where rich and poor mingle. Sit-down chain restaurants, like Olive Garden, Chili’s and Applebee’s, top the list. They bring Americans together more than any other private or public institution – eclipsing bars, churches, petrol stations, libraries, parks and schools.

As the US has become more unequal and less religious, rich and poor have become ever stranger to each other. In 1980 roughly 12 per cent of the population lived in places that were especially rich or especially poor. By 2013, one-third did. That made local schools less of a melting pot. Meanwhile, colleges became a sorting machine for adults. Low and high-wage workers rarely work in the same sectors. And though some high-paid men used to marry their secretaries, they now wed fellow executives whose paychecks resemble their own. An American in the top income quintile might come across people from different backgrounds at the post office or Starbucks, but they are unlikely to encounter an American from the poorest fifth.

In his book, Coming Apart, Charles Murray, a political scientist, argued that over the past several decades, upper and lower-class white people “have diverged so far in core behaviours and values that they barely recognise their underlying American kinship”. That does not bode well for the worse-off.

A scene from the local diner in the Seinfeld series. Chain eat-in restaurants promote social cohesion, say researchers.

A scene from the local diner in the Seinfeld series. Chain eat-in restaurants promote social cohesion, say researchers.Credit: NBC/YouTube