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When Good Chains Go Bad

What does it take for a chain store to earn our enmity? Certainly not Swedish-named coffee pots made in Taiwan or so-so hyperglazed donuts.

By Kelly Luker

IT'S BEEN MORE THAN A MONTH since Swedish housewares/furniture chain Ikea opened its new store in Emeryville, but security guards are still directing overflow parking to distant dirt lots.

Ikea opened right after another equally vaunted chain touched down nearby--donut maker Krispy Kreme, which threw open the doors of its calorie-laden paradise to overflowing, huge crowds (of, frankly, huge people). It's all too reminiscent of the arrival of In-N-Out Burger, which cruised up from Southern California to Milpitas just a few years ago. On opening day, it's been said, there was nary a dry eye or unspattered chin in sight.

What is it about cheap furniture, run-of-the-mill donuts and cookie-cutter burgers that seem to get our collective panties wet? I decided to take a road trip to find out.

The vision quest begins in downtown San Jose and ends almost an hour and a sore butt later within the maze of overpasses and industrial lots that is Emeryville. It is an unlikely setting for the religious reverie shoppers seem to be experiencing, but it helps to remember that if the Virgin Mary can reveal herself on a tree trunk and the holy son's likeness shows up on a corn tortilla, anything is possible.

For those not familiar with who--or what--Ikea is, imagine a building the size of two Costcos, filled with stuff raided from Target and Sears and relabeled with funny-sounding foreign words.

That, in a nutshell, is the Ikea experience.

Maybe one's home would be profiled in Architectural Digest--or better yet, InStyle--were it tastefully appointed in skanare, gøønk and vårnomo rather than bookshelves, beanbag chairs and a sofabed. Unfortunately, no Swedish word exists for my favorite interior mood, where bedsheets substitute for curtains and cable spools are niftily recycled as coffee tables.

Back in the car and a U-turn takes us to 880 and Union City, where the Krispy Kreme experience awaits. Like Ikea, it is interactive, allowing the little guy a privileged look at ... how the donuts are actually made! Long lines of portly patrons snake past the windowed pastry factory, oohing and aahing at the old-fashioneds and crullers toppling into boiling fat. The mood is festive, like we've been in line hours waiting for rock concert tickets. Oddly enough, nobody seems that excited about the product itself. While a few go so far as to say the donuts are "good," superlatives like "fabulous," "to die for" and "major mouth orgasm" are strangely missing. Like lemmings--or perhaps the ill-fated crullers poised above the oil vat--no one is quite sure why he or she is there, except because everyone else is, too.

Krispy Kreme donuts aren't lousy, by any means. A blind taste test back at the office nets a split vote, with a slight edge to Krispy Kreme over a beloved Hayward donuteer. But eight minutes is the longest any Metro colleague would stand in line for one of these smushy, hyperglazed delights. Of course, they haven't been subjected to the in-crowd atmosphere of a Krispy Kreme purchase line.

It was late, the sugar was leaching my adrenals bone-dry and there was still another stop in Milpitas. Screw it. As far as I can tell, In-N-Out Burger's greatest contribution to Southern California civilization was bumper stickers that could be altered to read "In-N-Out Urge." Cool.

So why do we swoon over some chain businesses coming to town, while we grab pitchforks and torches to ward off others? Wal-Mart is evil, Borders is evil, and everyone knows McDonald's should replace its golden arches with devil's horns. Starbucks used to be good, but now it's evil. Peet's Coffee, though proliferating, is still cool. Noah's Bagels is on virtually every corner in the Bay Area, but is still cool.

Maybe it's the closest Silicon Valley wired-ups can get to nostalgia. Forget the longing for Grandma's farm-fresh eggs or Mom's home cooking; now we get weepy over multimillion-dollar franchises that remind us of the town we lived in way back three years ago.

Pathetic. Unless, of course, that San Diego chain that makes the best fish tacos in the world ever finds its way up here. Where's my hankie?

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From the May 11-17, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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