It had to happen sooner or later.
First there was the TV.
Then there were frozen TV dinners.
Next came TV dinner trays.
That way you could watch TV while eating dinner.
No need for a table.
No need for a dining room.
Breaking bread is no longer a communal act.
If you doubt that, take a drive to California’s real heartland.
It is the most productive farm county in the nation.
It produces $8.1 billion worth of food crops a year.
That matches the entire production of the 27th largest agricultural state, which is Mississippi.
Go 16 or so miles west of Fresno where State Routes 180 and 145 intersect.
This is where you will find Kerman, a city of 16,000.
You will find restaurants like Kerman County Cafe, Cecila’s Mexican Food, and Cabanos Salvadoran Restaurant, among others.
You will find the usual cookie cutter Mickey D’s, Subway, et al as well as places like Chubby’s Diner.
You will also find an aberration of sorts.
It’s a 24-hour Denny’s with a twist.
It has a drive-thru.
There is still inside dining — for now.
If you don’t feel like eating your Grand Slam Breakfast, Moons over My Hammy, or steak and eggs in the comfort of your Tesla S or the front seat of your Ford F-150, you might be able to score patio seating.
This is not the first drive-thru Denny’s.
That popped up in 2017 in Indianapolis.
But that featured breakfast sandwiches and such.
Not a trimmed down menu of what you can get at the self-described “America’s Diner” such as the one on South Main Street in Manteca.
The “America’s Diner” slogan was run up the flagpole back in 2011 when then chief marketing officer Frances Allen wanted Denny’s to be the place where people from all walks of life connect over food.
Hasta la vista, American diner.
There’s no need to connect with people at the Kerman Denny’s.
You don’t need to sit in a communal dining room.
Instead, you can stay isolated inside your vehicle in a queue where you will tell a voice box what you want and pick up your order ideally in 10 minutes’ time.
No waitress juggling plates.
No chatter in the background or hearing the clanging of pots and pans in the kitchen.
But rest assured you will likely get a prompt asking you to tip.
Given traditional fast-food restaurants are tripping over each other to eliminate inside dining, this isn’t exactly new territory.
What is, however, is the deterioration of the “sit down” restaurant experience.
You know the one.
It serves a meal on real plates and not non-recyclable Styrofoam containers.
You can actually interact with other humans.
Dining. though, is in danger of no longer being an experience.
Instead, we will simply eat.
Steve Jobs and the wizards of Silicon Valley that turned smartphones into the most invasive electronic device ever and who often didn’t allow their own kids to use them, long ago destroyed the concept of dining with others in a way that made watching TV at the table seem non-intrusive.
Smartphones are now simply a utensil.
We aren’t mesmerized or addicted to forks, knives, and spoons.
You can’t say that about smartphones.
If the stepped-up pace of the world that shifted into first gear with the explosion of TV viewing and the advent of more mobility via cars in the 1950s made drive-in fast-food joints the nemesis of gathering places such as mom and pop diners, the smartphone has taken us into overdrive.
Everything is now instantaneous.
Dining. Dis-information. Shopping. Information.
Sit-down restaurants are losing their niche as gathering places.
They certainly are not going to disappear.
But then again, they probably said that about Howard Johnson’s.
The less time dining, of course, gives us more time to stream, game, or spread gossip and dis-information. With Uber Eats and such, we can feed our stomachs and do all that without even leaving our couches.
Petty and irritable exchanges with relatives over politics no longer have to be placed on hold until Thanksgiving.
We can engage in its 24/7 while relying on Taco Bell to go instead of grandma cooking a turkey.
Speaking of Thanksgiving, if you catch a “Waltons” rerun on your favorite streaming device in the coming days, you may get an inkling of what we’ve lost.
The dining table where memories once were forged is no longer a gathering place in many homes where people share life’s little miracles, mundane details, and tribulations.
Many new homes don’t even have dining rooms.
Connecting with family on a daily basis — or even via a weekly Sunday dinner — while taking the time to take bread together, is a lost art.
There was a time when most of us connected with people — regulars and others — at places such as Johnny’s, The Creamery, Chubby’s, Frank’s Downtown Cafe, and the Bakery of Escalon fame.
It is still happening but the trend is less and less of us embracing dining as a reason to gather or interact with friends and strangers.
Some of the trend is spurred by new realties.
Fast food restaurants are facing mandated $20 an hour minimum wage.
The California law may not apply to Denny’s as it is a sit-down restaurant, but the writing is on the wall.
Denny’s et al will need to compete with McDonald’s pay.
Bet no one back in 1965 saw that coming.
So will the Cheesecake Factories, Applebee’s and Panera Breads of the world, although the latter somehow was exempted from the $20 minimum because they made bread from scratch on site.
The desire to move away from dining rooms for many fast-food purveyors — and further up the food chain such as casual dining places like Chipotle’s and now diner chains like Denny’s — is powered by the bottom line.
More people are using apps and delivery services.
Less people are using dining rooms.
And in doing so more than a few fast-food places, such as a few in Stockton, have gotten rid of expensive headaches involving the homeless, drug users, and parents who let their children trash places by closing dining rooms.
Obviously, sit down restaurants will survive.
All is not bleak.
The seismic shift in fast food wages is a good thing for moms and pops.
You know the ones. They are family affairs whose owners literally treat their employees like family.
And typically, they are more attentive to service, food quality, and don’t try to guilt you into tipping.
A few weeks back, we visited a taqueria in the Raley’s shopping center in Tracy for dinner.
The tab came to $22.63.
Yes, we ordered in line but they brought the food to your table.
It should be noted we only had plastic cups of water.
The staff was friendly and attentive.
On the way back, we placed and picked up a McDonald’s order for a friend from the 11th Street location.
It came to $14.15 and included a soda.
The people manning the window acted as if they were doing us a favor.
I can only imagine how the price gap will close and the experience gap widen once the $20 an hour fast food minimum comes into play next year.
That’s not condemning the concept, simply making an observation.
The Bay Area-based franchise owners that opened the drive-thru Denny’s in Kerman may be on to something.
After all, it is a cut above a TV dinner and you don’t have to microwave it.
And you won’t be guilted into tipping the wait staff.
But then again, don’t expect free coffee refills.