B.J. Novak's 'Chain' Restaurant Concept Is an Exhausting and Exclusive Branding Experience
The idea of the chain restaurant is part of American culture. Fast food, fast casual. The nostalgia of the kitschy branding and in-and-out experience. It's embedded in generations of dining DNA.
B.J. Novak, possibly best known for his role of Ryan Howard on "The Office," as well as his other acting, writing, and directing projects, is honing in on that slice of Americana with a healthy dose of irony with his Chain restaurant concept. It's literally called Chain, and it's a very tongue-in-cheek send-up of American chain restaurants, combining aspects of just about all of them into one package, albeit with an exclusive twist.
And the package looks like this:
2022 = year of spoof fast food
— Andrea (@iiiitsandrea) December 4, 2022
Chain started as an idea before the pandemic, where the irony of the restaurant, despite its name, was the fact that it would have only one brick-and-mortar location. Obviously, the restaurant industry changed, and Novak and his partners switched instead to a pop-up format, using branded installations to create the Chain vibe.
Perfectly recreated Chili’s Southwestern Egg Rolls and a spicy blood orange margarita to wash them down. @chef_timothy is a wizard and @eatatchain is my dream come true. https://t.co/eQ1K5OTyXv pic.twitter.com/Hk4J096E13
— Gennefer Gross (@Gennefer) November 21, 2022
Once people were there (which was hard to do) they got elevated versions of fast food classics, created by celebrated chef Tim Hollingsworth, who previously worked at big name restaurants like the French Laundry.
Now with one location – a house in Los Angeles – the restaurant hosts "drops" mirroring the modern streetwear concept of forced exclusivity, and thus has quite a waitlist. But, when you're there, you see how Novak and co. used the branding of fast food restaurants as inspiration, like using retro promotional items from KFC or Pizza Hut to add to the vibe, but then taking that inspiration and making Chain products like packaging, napkins, drinkware, and a gift shop.
— chain (@eatatchain) November 19, 2022
It also even created a themed meal to coincide with the release of "Scream VI," called the "Stabby Meal": a bone marrow burger, fries, and collectible pins.
Paramount and Chain restaurant join forces for #Scream themed meal.
The “Stabby Meal” will be available starting February 24 in West Hollywood. pic.twitter.com/KojXFzA3d1
— Pop Crave (@PopCrave) February 18, 2023
Oh yeah, about that gift shop, Novak's ironic love letter to fast food isn't exactly easy to shop at.
When I went to the Chain website and clicked the web store link, I was given a prompt to enter my access code. I did not have an access code, so I had to click a link to request one. After entering my phone number, I waited for the text. I waited, and waited, and waited.
So, maybe it's not in the cards for me to shop at Chain's web store today. Maybe it's meant to be so exclusive that only other celebrities and quick-fingered Angelenos are meant to experience it.
So, I chose to go to another fast-food chain that felt a little more accessible, despite its regional exclusivity: Whataburger.
I've written about Whataburger's branding power in the past. It's made products that people want so badly that they'll pretend to be employees.
Right now, Whataburger has some really cool accessories, like a "2023 Fiesta Medal," which looks like an honor that a president or other dignitary would bestow upon you, but really just celebrates the restaurant's San Antonio roots. It's cute!
There's also an Igloo fanny pack, not unlike the Hot Pockets shorts; blue light glasses (that come in white and orange of course); a makeup bag' a very handsome leather belt for $125; and a "Drip Trip," which allows drivers to attach dip cups onto their car's air conditioning vents for on-the-go eating.
Novak and Chain obviously nailed the aspects of American fast food culture enough to make it appealing and fun, but it's all drenched in so much irony that it feels exhausting just to read about, let alone try to get a table. Sure, the food is probably unbelievable. Who doesn't want a Crunchwrap Supreme turned up to 11 by a chef of that caliber?
There's no denying that the attention to detail is second-to-none, though. That's what you get when you hire a designer who worked on incredible film productions like Nope.
But Novak sort of missed the mark when it comes to what these chains did with their branding, and why we all felt so connected to them in the first place: They're supposed to be for everyone. This is for a very specific group of people. And that's totally fine. I'm not here to yuck any exclusive yums. But in all of the irony of an upscale chain restaurant, the irony of having a version of one of the most accessible pieces of American culture feel so out of reach feels a little tiresome. There's a patronizing air to it all.
And I'm still waiting on that text code, by the way.