Same chain, different locales and quality
We just moved from the SF Bay Area to Tucson, and found that the Sweet Tomatoes here is decidedly inferior to the one in Sunnyvale, CA. The variety and recipes are the same, but many dishes were "off" (not as delicious, cooked, etc.) particularly the chili, the ice cream, the muffins and the sweet potatoes. However, the diet cola and service were much better than in CA.
We also found that the food at the Chipotle on Campbell in Tucson was so tastier than at the two Chipotles in CA we used to frequent, and also better than the two other Chipotles here in Tucson that we have tried. I asked the manager why her food was so much better, but she said that she just uses the same recipes as the others.
Perhaps it's just coincidence - we'll keep trying them and see. Wondered if you've found any regional/individual differences in these chains?
The goal of chain restaurants is consistency. The fact of the matter, in my opinion, is that a competent (read one that gives a shit) manager makes all the difference in the world.
I would say that the best a chain's food can be might be somewhat limited but the depths it can sink to is not.
While that is exactly the promise of a chain (come here and you can trust it will always taste the same) - I always wonder if how busy a specific location is will impact the quality. If the Chipotle in Tucson has more customers, then food is made more frequently and therefore fresher, hotter, etc.
My primary experience working in a chain was during my teen years working at Starbucks, and the busier the location the fresher everything would be. Coffee was brewed more often, milk was gone through faster, but most importantly - pastries would be gone through faster. Pastries at Starbucks have pretty long shelf life, but in a very busy location even though it's the "same" product, stuff is just sitting around less.
I have always been a huge fan of Fuddrucker's, and even as most locations in Florida have disappeared over the last 15 years, I still embark on a mission to visit the closest one at least once a year. I greatly prefer it to Five Guys, Boardwalk, and other more popular burger chains. Their burgers just taste better than everyone else's to me, between the meat, the bun, and the toppings -- I love being able to add my own. Their onion rings and fries are excellent, and even their desserts are awesome.
That said, I've always found Fuddrucker's to be wildly inconsistent from location to location, and even from visit to visit at the same location. Nothing deal-breaking for me, but my wife has ordered too many medium-rare burgers that come back anything but, to the point where she's completely done with them.
The one near us is also less organized than any of the others I've been to in different cities. There is a separate counter for the bakery with all the desserts, but nobody is ever there to take orders, and sometimes it isn't even lit up. You have to wait in the main food line to place a dessert order, but they don't have a dessert menu or prices there, and I swear the workers always seem confused when we've tried to order bakery items up front. You can even buy a loaf of bread that's the same as their delicious burger buns -- it says so on the menu up front -- but people lose their damn minds if you try to order that bread!
I've experienced a difference at the Chipotles near my office, they're 2 within a few miles. One of them, they always skimp on the ingredients, so you have to ask them to add more, and the workers there are not that friendly. the other one, they pile them on and everyone's really nice.
Also in my former town in CA, 2 of the Chipotles had a HUGE difference... so much, that one had great yelp ratings, and the other one had really poor ones.