Study Finds These Restaurants Bridge the Class Divide

Group of friends drinking beer and eating hamburgers in a pub. Focus is on man tasting a burger.

A new study has revealed that your local Olive Garden or Applebee's may be the solution to America's class divide.

According to Naval Post Graduate Maxim Massenhoff and Harvard University researcher Nathan Wilmers, popular full-service chain restaurants are where Americans from different walks of life are most likely to mix.

“The most socio-economically diverse places in America are not public institutions, like schools and parks, but affordable, chain restaurants,” Massenhoff and Wilmers write in Rubbing Shoulders: Class Segregation in Daily Activities.

Using SafeGraph mobile location data, the researchers tracked how many people assembled at certain places and where those people lived. By combining this data, they could discern how many visitors from different income brackets frequented different establishments and, with it, how much and where people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds mixed.

Isolated by Class

Smiling man and woman enjoying a glass of wine outdoors.
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Americans are isolated by class, a phenomenon that is more pronounced in urban and suburban areas, with wealthier Americans much more likely only to encounter their peers and neighbors.

According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology research, which tracked cellphone data from more than a million people in Boston, Dallas, Seattle, and Los Angeles, this divide has grown starker since the pandemic. They found fewer people visiting neighborhoods where residents made significantly more or less money than they did in December 2021 compared to January 2019, with interactions between people from different socioeconomic backgrounds plummeting by 30% over the period.

The researchers ascribed this change to a sharp rise in people working from home and shopping online, leading to more Americans staying close to their neighborhoods.

A Common Ground

People eating at fine dining restaurant
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However, Americans from different economic backgrounds appear to come together at what Massenhoff and Wilmers have dubbed “full-service, low-price restaurants,” such as IHOP, Applebee's, and Olive Garden.

Businesses like grocery stores, gyms, pharmacies, and public utilities such as parks, schools, and libraries tend to be less economically diverse as they serve their immediate community.

Meanwhile, fast food restaurants like McDonald's and Wendy's are also places where Americans from different socioeconomic brackets are far more likely to meet. However, it is far more likely for a wealthy American to meet a poor American at these kinds of eateries than vice versa, as they tend to serve more people from a lower socioeconomic stratum than a higher one.

Rich people don't tend to eat at McDonald's if they can help it. But somewhere like Panera Bread attracts people from all spheres. 

Eat, Pray, Upward-Social Mobility

vegan restaurant
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Although an innocuous research topic, Massenhoff and Wilmers' work shows that we may need to rethink current policies enacted to improve social cohesion to help encourage Americans from different backgrounds to socialize. This is especially true as towns across the country explore banning chain restaurants

As Harvard economist Raj Chetty noted in his paper Social Capital II: determinants of Economic Connectednesswhere you meet people is just as important as how you meet them. “The places in which people interact shape, to a great degree, the types of people they end up meeting at the friending,” he writes.  

Chetty notes people are more likely to create friendships across class divides at places like religious temples and restaurants — places where everyone is generally treated the same, regardless of socioeconomic status. This kind of “socioeconomic integration can increase economic connectedness in communities” and with it more cases of upward mobility.

It's a shocking revelation, gentle reader, but being sociable at IHOP might solve America's class divide. It makes sense; who doesn't love pancakes?

Olive Garden was approached for comment but did not respond at the time of going press.