It’s a hell of a walk from Columbia, Missouri, to Lawrence, Kansas but the drive isn’t bad. The speed limit is 65, but if you’re not going 80, you start to feel like Moses parting the sea. The pavement stands out like an awkward scab across the flesh of the great Midwestern plains. I look at the ground of the passenger seat by my friend’s feet for some leftover food, but we’re all out of Doritos. We had been driving for about an hour during the second leg of our second annual end-of-summer road trip. At the end of the past two summers, about two weeks before school starts, my friend and I visit our friends around the Midwest who start school before us. One of the great things about visiting other schools is experiencing their campus life. Unfortunately, on our six-college tour of the Midwest, the things that stuck out the most were the striking similarities.
When we left Columbia, our friend was raving about how phenomenal Buffalo Wild Wings was, and how exciting it was to watch Cardinals games. Later that night, when we were stricken with munchies, he suggested this sandwich place called “Jimmy John’s.” Right, I thought, no big deal. So Columbia has a couple of things in common with Michigan. But do they have Blimpy Burger? What about NYPD? Big Ten Burrito? I wasn’t too worried yet. I asked him if we could sample some of the local flavor, so he called up Gumby’s Pizza, which was famous for its “Pokey Bread.” It sounded a lot more unique than appetizing, but I was excited to satisfy the munchies Mizzou-style. So Gumby’s put me at ease for a while and so did the next stage of our trip.
Driving down the main strip of Lawrence was like entering a working-class Ann Arbor. “This is more like it,” I started to think. But before I had passed two traffic lights I saw the familiar neon signs, and started to take in the familiar “Free Smells.” Lawrence even had an Urban Outfitters that was constructed with an all-glass front, just like the one on State Street. Even the grocery market had a counterpart, being owned by the same company that owns Kroger. It was almost too much to handle. We found a really cool old candy store, and ate lunch at this independent Mexican restaurant (even though it had a fairly generic menu) that at least didn’t share its name with any other restaurant I had come across.
Those were our only two stops for the first weekend. When we got back to St. Louis (where we both live), we drove to one of the most popular areas near Washington University, a place known commonly as “The Loop.” But driving down through The Loop – a street where each tile of sidewalk contains a bronze star dedicated to a famous St. Louisan, including Tennessee Williams, Ulysses S. Grant and Chuck Berry – I noticed that some of our businesses had been replaced. We had Jimmy John’s, Qdoba, Blockbuster and Gamestop. Corporate contamination so close to home proved to be a bigger problem to me. I was much more observant during our second weekend trip.
Our first destination on our second road trip was Urbana-Champaign, which I found had components from every university I had visited before. Urban Outfitters, Qdoba, Jimmy John’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Gumby’s, Potbelly’s Sandwich Works and Schnucks (a dominant grocery chain in St. Louis) all in addition to the major chains like Subway, Starbucks and McDonalds, which took over the world a long time ago.
What does this say about the Midwest in general? To start, it says that there isn’t much point in exploring it. Seriously, besides the fact that different people attend these Universities, every time a Jimmy John’s is built, another campus becomes a little bit like every other campus, and the Midwest becomes a bit more of a generalization. I was ready to get out of Urbana-Champaign, and head to Peoria, Illinois, to visit my friend at Bradley University. But even as we pulled into Peoria, we mostly saw the same old sites. The last sign we saw heading back to the highway was a big yellow banner, which read “Coming soon: Buffalo Wild Wings.” Buffalo Wild Wings is one of the fastest growing chains in America, with over 340 restaurants in 34 states, many of which are in college towns.
“They started out in college towns, they started in Columbus, Ohio in a college town in 1981. They are reaching out to larger crowds, like the late night sports crowd, and families,” Liz Brady, a spokesperson for Buffalo Wild Wings said. After the kind of success the company had in 2004, it’s not hard to understand why they want to expand. The total revenue for the company increased 32 percent to $48.5 million.
“In the fourth quarter, we continued to successfully position Buffalo Wild Wings as the ideal destination for great food, a lively atmosphere and friendly service,” Sally Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Buffalo Wild Wings.
Corporate expansion is nothing new, but even Ann Arbor – a place that has long been hailed as the Athens of the Midwest – seems to be falling to corporate Spartans. Over the past year alone, we have lost Harry’s Army Surplus Outdoor Outfitters, and (comic book store on South U.) and as of last November, we have had Buffalo Wild Wings. I think one of my friend’s who visited me put the news of Harry’s closing best, “How the hell can an Army-Navy surplus store go out of business in a college town?” Even though it seems like Ann Arbor is losing this race more slowly than other places (the Buffalo Wild Wings in Columbia is almost four and a half years old, and the one in East Lansing has been around for over decade) we’re not going to last much longer. I even heard one of my friends say the other day to a friend at Michigan State, “I like your Buffalo Wild Wings much better than ours.” Is this going to be the new mark of the college campus? When Mr. Fiske sits down to publish his guide to college towns, is he going to have to rate the franchises in the town to the rest in the country, rather than sampling the University in general?
One of the big reasons I chose to come all the way to Michigan from St. Louis was the diverse culture the city of Ann Arbor had to offer. How many people are going to want to pay $36,000 a year to try a maize and blue Buffalo Wild Wings or Potbelly? A large part of the campus culture is defined by the variety of stores and restaurants around the city.