Chains and melted food product drive Cool Springs dining 

“If the purpose of the modern American suburb is to make sure that no citizen is ever more than 500 yards from a food product featuring melted cheese, then Mesa cannot be faulted.”

That’s what New Yorker writer Bill Bryson had to say about the Arizona suburb earlier this month as part of a loving tribute to his late father, Des Moines Register sportswriter Bill Bryson. The younger Bryson recently trekked to Mesa, where his father traveled every February to cover the Chicago Cubs in spring training. What he discovered was that the Mesa of 2001 is a far cry from the town his father found in the early 1970s.

Over the past four decades, Mesa’s population has grown more than tenfold, from 34,000 in 1960 to more than 400,000 now, with most of the population living on the edge of the city.

This is not dissimilar to Williamson County, which, according to U.S. Census figures, grew by 56 percent in the last decade. Much of that residential growth occurred in the county’s two largest cities, Franklin and Brentwood. But the core of that spurt was Cool Springs, a source of enviable sales-tax revenue. But don’t look for Cool Springs to become its own city anytime soon. In fact, according to Suzie Ahlberg, president of both the Brentwood and Cool Springs chambers of commerce (formed in November 1998 and now counting 400 members) Cool Springs is called, for want of a better description, an “area.”

If, as Bryson’s suburban hypothesis would indicate, no citizen of Brentwood or Franklin is ever more than 500 yards from a food product featuring melted cheese, then in the “Cool Springs area” that distance diminishes to about 50 yards, thanks to the astounding proliferation of restaurants over the past six years.

Though the Galleria opened in 1991, the restaurant growth in the area—which is divided into quadrants and stretches between two interchanges—had its boom years between 1996 and 1998, according to Gary Luffman, codes director for the city of Franklin. He has lost count of the number of restaurants in the area, and Ahlberg only keeps track of the ones that are members of the Cool Springs Chamber. But it’s safe to say that including fast-food joints and pizza and sandwich shops, there are close to 100 places where workers and shoppers in the area can buy lunch.

The growth continues unabated, according to Luffman, who says 14 new restaurants were built in Franklin last year while four are currently under construction or scheduled to open soon. In March alone, his office received 14 more calls from restaurant representatives making serious inquiries about the Cool Springs area. That’s a lot of melted cheese.

While there is a sprinkling of independents in the area—Beethoven’s, Sportsman’s Lodge, and the brand-new Julia’s—the vast majority of the dining choices in Cool Springs are of the chain restaurant ilk. That’s pretty much in keeping with the theory that the reason people—out-of-towners in particular—are attracted to the area is because of the familiarity. Families who move to Franklin/Brentwood/Cool Springs from say, Mesa, Ariz., don’t have to think about where to go to find a food covered in melted cheese when they can mosey into a Rafferty’s, Rio Bravo, or Red Lobster just like the one back home. Similarly, no one needs to step outside of the box if they’re in the mood for Mexican, Italian, or Japanese, as there are many safe, not-too-Italian/Mexican/Japanese choices available.

In the almost 10 years that I have been reviewing restaurants for the Scene, I have made no secret of my aversion to most chain restaurants. I find their formulaic and conceptual approach to dining unappealing, their food mediocre at best, and their complete disregard for fresh, healthy food and reasonable portion sizes criminal. Professionally, I am sometimes forced into checking out ones that are new to the market; otherwise, I rarely review chains and, believe me, it’s better that way.

When restaurants first began popping up in the Cool Springs area, primarily in the Westgate Commons Center in the northeast quadrant of Cool Springs, I was somehow persuaded to visit Cozymel’s, a Mexican-American chain that opened there in 1996. It wasn’t pretty. Here are a few choice comments from one of the most scathing reviews I’ve ever penned:

♦ “We tried the piña coladas and got our first hint of the odd chemical aftertaste that lingered from some of the sauces, the fruit-flavored margaritas, and the guacamole.”

♦ “Cozymel’s supposedly features the cuisine of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. I’ve never been to Cancun or Cozumel, but if Cozymel’s is serving the real thing, I’ll pack my own lunch if I do ever hit the Yucatan.”

♦ “...a remarkably greasy chili relleno, a fatty chicken enchilada, a sinfully over-grilled piece of salmon, grilled tenderloin medallions, and a blackened swordfish were all marked by nearly fatal overdoses of cheese....”

Five years later, Cozymel’s is still packing them in.

As the area grew and I had occasion to make rare trips to Cool Springs, I couldn’t help but notice that chain restaurants were cropping up at an alarming rate. This observation led to my Cool Springs chain-restaurant conspiracy theory: that in the entire area, there is just one huge, underground communal kitchen that serves every restaurant. In this top-secret kitchen, dozens of legal and illegal aliens—the ones who aren’t mortaring the brick to Williamson County’s million-dollar homes and building genuine stone “slave” walls to surround those bunkers—are hunkered down over steaming pots of Mexican sauce, Italian sauce, brown sauce, white sauce, and of course, melted cheese. An order comes in from Cozymel’s or Macaroni Grill or J.Alexander’s, the appropriate sauce and cheese is poured over the plate, and it is whisked, by pneumatic tubes, to a holding area in the restaurant. Finally, it’s trotted out to the dining room as if it had been freshly cooked in their very own kitchen.

There are exceptions. Beethoven’s is one, owned by Nashvillians Teri and Jerry McCloud, who also own Second & Goal in downtown Nashville. They purchased the property in 1998 and opened Beethoven’s the next year. The menu is familiar American, with no entrée over $19.95, but McCloud says everything is prepared fresh, and their calling card remains good food, good service, and good prices. Better yet, he says, when a corporate decision is needed, he calls his wife and they make it in about 30 seconds. He thinks that there are currently more restaurants than there are diners in the area. “Anyone who opens a restaurant there now, chain or independent, should check themselves into a psychiatric ward, because they’re crazy.”

That depends on your quadrant, perhaps. Atlanta Bread Company, a 90-plus-franchise, quick-casual restaurant chain headquartered outside of Atlanta, opened its first Tennessee store in the southwest quadrant of the Cool Springs area in November of last year, close to the area’s first Starbucks and a Carrabba’s now under construction. According to corporate spokesperson Paul Wilson, that location is one of the company’s top five performers.

While the southwest quadrant booms, some in the northeast quadrant are feeling a crunch. Canyon Café in Westgate Commons closed about a month ago; Applebee’s and Hoolihan’s also closed, but they have been replaced by two more chains: Amerigo and Cooker, respectively. But honestly, who could tell the difference between Applebee’s and Amerigo, Hoolihan’s and Cooker, except for the type of melted cheese product? Further proof, I maintain, of the communal underground kitchen theory.

The Cozymel’s visit back in 1996 had one lingering benefit: It released me from feeling any professional obligation to review chain restaurants. As I noted then, my colleagues in criticism don’t put themselves through such torture. Music writers don’t concern themselves with cover bands, arts writers avoid arguing the merits of flea-market velvet paintings, and architecture critic Christine Kreyling doesn’t pontificate about Circle K’s. At that moment, I declared my emancipation from chain restaurants—the cover bands/velvet paintings/convenience stores of the food world.

Unfortunately, as the blinding, jarring, neon-lit brightness of the after-dark Cool Springs area proves, just ignoring them won’t make them go away. As long as a peculiar and inexplicable love for food product with melted cheese exists among Americans, fast-food and chain restaurants will thrive, as the culinary options in Cool Springs attest. It makes me a little queasy.

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