Friday, November 23, 2012

The Chipotle Effect

I live in a college town. More specifically, I live in a sorority to the most popular bar in town. Needless to say, any night of the week between the hours of 11PM and 2AM, except Sunday night, is an adventure.

In the five years that I have lived here, and for several more before my arrival, the town’s development was stagnant. When the recession hit, the few development projects under consideration came to a sudden halt as uncertainty and risk-aversion took hold of even the most speculative of real estate investors. Those projects have since been reignited, and ground has broken on new hotels, apartments, and supermarkets. However, in the intervening years, the only new businesses to spring up in town were those with the highest probability of succeeding: restaurants.

What is interesting is that the restaurants that opened and came to dominate the eat scene are derivations of the same model, essentially the Chipotle-pioneered assembly line. Whether its Jason’s Deli, Lime, Potbelly, Roti, Saladworks, Chidogos, Jimmy John's, Bobby's Burger Palace, Yogiberry, or Five Guys, all of these restaurants specialize in grab-and-go eating. You walk up to a register, choose a “platform” (e.g., sandwich bread, salad bowl, burrito tortilla), pick your toppings, and either grab a seat or hit the road. No need for waiters or waitresses in this model, or for tipping. If you decide to eat in the restaurant, which is sometimes made difficult by the relatively small number of actual tables, the whole experience takes no more than twenty minutes.

In many ways, the popularity of these restaurants makes perfect sense. They are quick, inexpensive, and offer a fair amount of flavor diversity. Franchisers and restaurateurs are simply responding to market demand. However, if we take a step back, we must wonder how this consumer preference came to exist. And if seemingly every new restaurant that pops up assumes this form, we must ask how this space is shaping—in what I call the Chipotle effect—the way college students think, behave, and relate to one another.

Many intellectuals have noted that we are living in an era of unprecedented, even celebrated, individualism. They see evidence of this individualism in the declining rates of participation in civil society and community (see Bowling Alone). They likewise see it in changing conceptions of the family, with more and more young people choosing to put off marriage and having children until they establish themselves, complete their degrees, or enjoy youth unburdened by responsibilities beyond self-gratification (see Bobos in Paradise). The assembly line restaurant model should be seen as an expression of this individualism. You are able to take a more or less flavor neutral piece of bread or tortilla and individualize it to your liking.

As I thought about the other types of projects that constitute redevelopment in the area, I realized that there are other spaces catering to individuation. Take, for example, student housing. Many of the new apartment complexes, which, by the way, are constructed above retail spaces featuring Chipotles and similar establishments, have adopted a uniform set-up. Students have their own bedroom and bathroom, with a shared kitchen and common area. There can be as many as four or five individual bedrooms to an “apartment”. Students have fewer opportunities to accessorize their rooms as they could a burrito, but the space is, nevertheless, theirs alone. Given the exorbitant amount students pay for a bedroom in these set-ups, it is perhaps foolish to argue that they should have anything less than their own, separate domain.

Yet research suggests that students, particularly those in their first year, have higher grades and are more likely to stay at a university if they live in traditional residence halls, where they share a large bathroom and live with a roommate in an admittedly small space. I recognize that not all students are able to live on campus, nor does this generic conclusion capture the experience of all students. But it does imply that, rather than merely selecting where we eat or sleep based on our preferences, we are also profoundly affected by the spaces we regularly inhabit.

Herein lies the potential problematic of the Chipotle effect. If increasingly we navigate spaces that encourage our individualism, do our interactions become brief, passing, or diluted? When we devote so little time to sitting down for a meal, what activities fill the void? For me, when I take away lunch from one of these restaurants, I don’t use the time gained in any useful way. I eat in front of my laptop, perusing Facebook—alone. If we extend the Chipotle effect beyond eating habits, the grab-and-go ethos becomes ritualized and normalized. For an entire generation, constant movement and diluted relationships becomes our modus operandi.

These observations stem from a single college town. Having visited only a handful of other towns home to large concentrations of young people, I can only hazard to guess at their transferability. But those of you in college towns, in particular, should take note of these developments. For they represent physical embodiments of prevailing discourses in higher education exalting student mobility, flexibility, and self-investment.  At risk of overextending my argument, we in college towns sit at the confluence of various currents shaping a new type of person, one who is always grabbing and going at the whim of their individual desires. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Craft Craze

All waiting rooms in car repair shops are the same. Outdated sports magazines. Coffee maker with Styrofoam cups. Strange rubber odor. And a television tuned-in to some news channel. My recent trip to a local car repair shop did not disappoint, featuring all requisite elements of the full oil change and tire rotation experience. As I sat, disinterestedly flipping through the pages of a Sports Illustrated circa 2009, I overheard a television segment on the performance of Restoration Hardware in its initial public offering.

The segment included an interview with the CEO of Restoration Hardware, Carlos Alberini, who attributed the success of the company to shifting “up-market”. Whereas competitors responded to the economic recession by slashing prices, Restoration went the other direction, focusing its marketing on expensive furniture consistent with its stylistic mission of providing “authentic” American home goods.

Having walked through Restoration on several occasions and glanced at the price tags hanging from lamps, distressed dressers, and ancient maps, it is hard to imagine there being a huge market for such luxury items. Yet I was reminded on a recent weekend trip that there is demand for products that reflect material authenticity and local craftsmanship—even if they are simply replicas or are made to look “crafted”. The base for this market has widened beyond antiquers, collectors, and snobs. And I believe it will continue to grow as our generation increasingly distances itself from the knowledge needed to actually construct what retailers like Restoration produce en masse.

The Craft Getaway

My wife and I packed our bags a few weeks back for a weekend retreat to Charlottesville, Virginia. We mainly wanted a change of scenery and a chance to soak in the fall colors before they fell to the ground, but we also planned to stop at a few breweries and wineries. Our first stop was for lunch with friends at Blue Mountain Brewery, which was packed from wall to wall with diners and drinkers. Founded in 2007, Blue Mountain has followed in the footsteps of several successful microbrewing operations in the region, structuring their business model around sustainability, local community engagement, and treating beer making like an art form. My friend explained that the original restaurant connected to the brewery was originally quite modest in dimensions. The popularity of the place precipitated a large expansion, which looked to be paying for itself without any issue. On the day we visited, business was booming.

Crowds did not diminish as we ventured out the vineyards. We were greeted at each wine tasting room with large groups of smartly dressed people, all of whom seemed to be visitors to the area. My experience in Charlottesville is but a real-life example of what Restoration and other businesses like it know to be true. There is a consumer craze for all things “craft”, from home furnishings to alcoholic beverages. Since I found myself square in the middle of this craze, I looked inward for possible explanations.

For me, connecting with authentically crafted things is an expression of appreciation. I buy what I cannot create myself but desperately wish that I could. It is true that these things tend to be high quality, well constructed, and tasteful. This makes it easy to justify spending more on them than your run-of-the-mill bookcases and merlots. But the consumer craze for craft fills deeper needs.

We, Knowledge Workers

The reality is that my generation was born into society that does not really manufacture things as it once did. We are outcomes and drivers of the knowledge society, where the primary source of income and economic growth is not what you make, but rather what you know. We are the generation that aspires to be consultants or entrepreneurs in some sense or another. Working comfortably in the realm of ideas, we are highly skilled laborers—on our laptops.

Even as we celebrate our smart phones and relish in our post-secondary education, we inevitably confront the fact that our knowledge is astonishingly specialized and can rarely be applied to creating or fixing real things. We have to find others to fix our cars or remodel our kitchens. Many of these people exist on the margins of the knowledge society, yet remain vital to its functioning. This is not to say that no one in my generation creates anything material, or has zero knowledge applicable to real-world problems. But speaking in generalities, we are beyond a doubt a generation out of touch with tangible things.

The Choice

So we face a choice. We can learn a craft, either as a hobby or as a source of livelihood (if we are willing to assume the risk that accompanies it). Or we can show our appreciation of the authenticity and artistry that goes into making handcrafted goods by whipping out our credit cards. Most of us seem to make the latter choice. The reality is that, unless we can make our craft into a successful business venture like Blue Mountain Brewery, there is a higher value placed on knowing how to edit a website than how to make cabinets. While many of us like to think we are capable of going against the grain and denying economic incentives, we are likely to respond to the version of the good life we inherited.

Our quest for all things crafted will not likely diminish in the coming years. That is, of course, unless we rethink our priorities and recalculate the value assigned to certain skills and ways of knowing. I like to hope that in the future my interaction with craft will not be constrained to items on the shelves of Restoration Hardware. I like to think of a version of myself who can actually make and fix things, instead of a person who merely appreciates these abilities from the sidelines. The out-the-door lines of people in the local wineries and microbreweries of Charlottesville suggest that there may be others out there who feel the same way. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Rise of the Creative Campus

In the fall of 2013, my campus community—the University of Maryland—will move forward with its goal of becoming a worldwide leader in entrepreneurship by launching a new center to groom the next generation of innovative thinkers. The center advertises that it will offer workshops, classes, and experiences outside the classroom to promote the creative problem-solving skills employers seek and the economy needs to grow.

The University of Maryland is not alone in its promotion of entrepreneurship. Across the country, colleges and universities have established centers, competitions, and academic programs similarly dedicated to entrepreneurship. The ubiquity of entrepreneurship as a guiding force in U.S. higher education is nothing new. After all, innovation through research has been built into college and universities’ reason for being. Indeed, we have always sought to cultivate creative thinking. Yet, given the economic recession and cultural conversations surrounding the role of higher education in job creation, the presence of entrepreneurship on our campuses will only grow. And our promotion of innovation and creativity will be cast in a decidedly economical hue.   

This heightened presence sends clear signals to students about whom they should come to rely for employment and financial security upon graduation: themselves. The rise of the Creative Campus is emblematic of a larger process of developing highly individuated, flexible, competitive, and mobile students. It remains to be seen whether the entrepreneurial push in higher education will benefit individuals, communities, or a combination of the two.

The Broken Promise

The attentive observer cannot help but notice the negative turn in conversations surrounding higher education in the United States. Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times have all recently run feature stories on the problems facing our colleges and universities, namely rising tuition costs, mounting debt burdens, and poor employment prospects for students. The theme of these conversations is that “The Promise,” a persistent cultural assumption in America that hard work and a postsecondary degree will result in a job and prosperity, is under dire threat. Despite the evidence showing that college is still an investment with significant private and public returns, students and their families are scrutinizing the value of higher education like never before.

Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have weighed in on how they would help address these issues. While both candidates generically support making college affordable for middle class families, their approaches differ. Obama supports stepping up federal support for Pell Grants and community colleges, playing up in debates the important role of the latter in re-training unemployed workers, while regulating for-profit post-secondary providers. Romney generally advocates greater private sector participation in higher education funding and provision. Irrespective of their approach, both candidates couch their solutions to the issues confronting U.S. higher education in terms of what is required to reignite the sputtering economy. Whether it is cultural conversations regarding the demise of “The Promise” or reform ideas of presidential hopefuls, there is an unmistakable call to restore higher education as an innovative, job-creating machine.

The Rise of the Creative Campus

It is in this context that we can understand the inescapability of entrepreneurship in college and university strategic plans of late. Higher education leaders are responding to the call, building centers, hiring faculty and staff, and educating students in how to tap their creativity and generate big ideas. The whole purpose of these efforts is to remove or lessen the obstacles to translating an idea into a viable business. In these centers, students can connect with investors or Entrepreneurs-in-Residence to network or receive feedback on their product or pitch. They can even major in Entrepreneurship Studies and take courses that help them develop an entrepreneurial mindset. But the establishment of entrepreneurship centers is only the most direct and visible way that colleges and universities are positioning themselves to foster creativity.

Geographer Jamie Peck (2005) has pointed out how many cities have developed urban plans that cater to the “creative class,” many of them taking inspiration from Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. The basic premise of these plans is to invest in infrastructure that makes a city attractive to the “creatives” responsible for economic competitiveness, including manicured green areas, artistic venues, repurposed historic spaces, pedestrian and bike-friendly paths, and diverse eateries and other consumption magnets. We see similar plans emerging for campuses and nearby neighborhoods across the country. Although it is true some of these initiatives are products of sustainability movements and consumer preferences, there is reason to believe that higher education is staking its current and future legitimacy on creating an environment conducive to creativity.

Entrepreneurial Subjects

By betting on entrepreneurship and creative individuals as the drivers of economic growth, colleges and universities communicate to students that employment will not naturally follow conferment of a degree. In the same vein, politicians and the government do not hold the key to prosperity. Rather, students’ implicit understanding of the entrepreneurial push in higher education, to borrow from Florida, is that “there is no corporation or other large institution that will take care of us—that we are truly on our own” (2002: 115). Amidst continued economic uncertainty, students internalize the messages of entrepreneurship to mean that they should constantly enrich their own human capital and invest in themselves to develop the creative capacities that will set them apart from competitors in the labor market. Remaining at the margins are those college students who have not had access to the resources of self-capitalization, those with a creative deficit.

These entrepreneurial subjects may be pivotal in re-establishing the vitality of colleges and universities, and they may also jumpstart economic growth in America. The question we must ask is whether the big ideas we hope to foster are designed to solve social problems and benefit communities, or revive historical narratives of individual achievement and the “self-made” man or woman in the creation of elite knowledge competitors. If we increasingly expect students to shoulder the rising costs of their own post-secondary education, perhaps we should not be surprised to find them using their innovations to benefit themselves first and communities second.