Sniffen Packets

With a name like Sniffen, it's got to smell good.

Why are there diners?

In most of the Denver area, there are no diners. There are Einstein’s Bagels, Village Inns, Dennys’, IHOPs, and so on. There are no chains smaller than large regional. There are few independent restaurants. As we drove last week from Denver to Kremmling, we saw many Starbucks and few local coffee shops. Boston is similar: lots of chains, though a few local businesses thrive. In New York, independent shops and restaurants are very common. There are certainly chains too, but enough independent restaurants that most people do business with them regularly. Why?

Most readers know that I’ve been looking for good diners in Boston for a long time. The Deluxe Town is nice, but its menu is thirty pages too short to really count. Now I think I’ve figured it out: big chains have figured out marketing and memetics enough to capture lots of market. But they can only be so dense before they overload people. A Starbucks every few blocks is one thing; heavier concentrations draw complaints. If there’s a McDonald’s on this block and a Burger King next block, people will be turned off to see a McDonald’s on the next block further. As a result, there’s a maximum concentration of each big chain.

Further, there’s only enough national population to support a certain number of national chains. When each of those are at their maximum sustainable density, but there’s still enough population to support more business, then something like the thriving diner culture I’m looking for comes into being. In New York, under the further influence of particular immigrant communities, that became diner culture itself. New York City is the densest population center in North America. The diner culture grew there and has spilled over into the surrounding suburbs.

As the number of supportable big chains increases, and as big chains diversify (each with a burger place, coffee/milkshake place, burrito place, etc.), they’ll find ways to pack more densely and attack the remaining diner space. They’ll also find ways to support more national chains. I don’t hold out much hope that the diners I love will come to Boston. But at the other end of the spectrum, Kremmling had no visible chain businesses. With only a thousand people, franchising doesn’t make sense: people do their own thing. The local coffee shop looked pretty good.