Tuesday, January 24, 2006

New Feature: Knowlege Drop

Yup, another new feature for Hayduke’s place. Titled “Knowledge Drop,” I’ll use this feature, appropriately enough, to drop some knowledge on y’all; “knowledge” being pithy facts and other bits of information that I come across in my journeys through the World Wide Web.

Today’s Drop was inspired by a remarkably decent dining experience I had recently. Accustomed to the exceedingly long wait times, poor service, bland food, and nonexistent ambiance of so many of our local restaurants, I was pleasantly surprised the other day when, in an attempt to redeem a gift card, Abbzug and I visited the Cheesecake Factory (Oh thank you, great Cheesecake bosses, for choosing our humble city to host one of your establishments. We’re not worthy. Really, we’re not.).

Anyway, the trip only involved two of the four common ills of Columbia restaurants. Surprisingly, the wait wasn’t horrible (only 35 minutes!) and the service was good. At least the food and ambiance lived down to expectations.

It was this experience that made me wonder (at least more than I usually do) why restaurants in Columbia and Howard County so bad, and why we are required to wait for so long to sit in their crowded dining halls and eat their lame food.

The armchair economist in me always believed it had something to do with a market shortage -- that is, demand for dining out is greater than the supply of choices, so restaurants can afford (to some extent) to make us wait AND eat bad food. But, this was just another hair-brained thought of mine, with little basis in reality.

Then, I stumbled upon a clue while visiting this very useful website: Columbia has 0.6 full service restaurants per 1,000 residents (full service being where you sit down and they bring you food, not McDonald’s). That number alone, however, means very little. But what about if we compare Columbia’s ratio to other communities?

Towson, MD: 0.8 

Gaithersburg, MD: 0.9

Hagerstown, MD: 0.9

Frederick, MD: 1

Harrisburg, PA: 1

Boulder, CO: 1.2 

Bethesda, MD: 1.3

San Francisco, CA: 1.9

(Source: US Census data, County and Zip Business Patterns, 2002)

Okay, I can understand San Francisco and Bethesda having more than twice the restaurants per person of Columbia. And I’ll give you Boulder, with its university and large population of anti-corporate hippies. But Harrisburg, Frederick, Gaithersburg and HAGERSTOWN? Come on, we deserve better than Hagerstown, don’t we?

A couple other interesting tidbits:

Columbia’s Town Center (and 21044 Zip Code, for that matter) comes in at 0.3 full service restaurants per 1,000 residents. Pathetic.

Similarly devoid of restaurants is The Woodlands, Texas -- another Rouse Company planned community, albeit one with an extremely pretentious name. The Houston suburb has a ratio identical to Columbia’s.

Remember, one of the four guiding principles of Columbia’s development was that the city would meet “all the basic needs of its people including housing, jobs, recreation, educational and cultural institutions and health care.” I guess, however, we’ll let the Rouse Company/General Growth slide by on a technicality, since eating isn’t included as a “basic” need.

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