The last few months have seen the openings of Taco Bell, a second KFC, and now PopeyesJack Rennie with permission for Varsity

In his annual diary published in the London Review of Books, Alan Bennett remarked that Venice and Cambridge are perhaps the only two places on Earth where “there was nothing to offend the eye.” Given the persistent sharpness of his wit, I’ll give Mr Bennett the benefit of the doubt and presume that, even at the age of 88, it’s not his eyesight that’s failing him. He just must not have visited the centre of Cambridge recently.

Once dappled with the few blemishes of McDonald’s, Subway, and Five Guys, the heart of Cambridge is now pock-marked with a whole new blight of American fast food. The last few months alone have seen the openings of Taco Bell, a second KFC, and now Popeyes. Though the line currently snaking out of the last establishment suggests otherwise, these restaurants offer nothing to the city save for the one-two punch of soulless aesthetics and bad food.

“Cambridge already has fantastic locally owned and operated restaurants”

Any argument that Cambridge is somehow in need of these franchises would have to go straight through the city’s fantastic locally owned and operated outlets: Aromi, the Gardenia, and Nanna Mexico to name a few. These businesses provide great food at relatively affordable prices and, most importantly, all have a share in the culture of Cambridge – I’ve never let someone come and visit me here without us getting at least one scoop of Jack’s Gelato. Every new American fast food chain that appears in town not only detracts from this with a fresh streak of corporate nothingness, it also takes up space that could otherwise be housing the next great local joint.

Even the most ardent Louisiana-fried-chicken fan would be forced to concede that a meal at any of Cambridge’s new American imports is not meaningfully cheaper – and certainly no healthier – than what one could get from a local vendor. Their menus also tend to be far more exclusionary: I could eat a different vegan or vegetarian option at Gardies every night for a couple of weeks before I’d have to repeat myself. For comparison, I could count the number of veggie options at Taco Bell and Five Guys on a single hand. Even so, they still have a leg up over Popeyes, who have just one.

This is not a problem unique to Cambridge: the Daily Mail recently published an interactive map that lets users see “if there’s a Popeyes, Wendy’s, Shake Shack or Wing Stop near YOU.” American fast food is having something of a renaissance in the UK, five-a-days and obesity rates be damned. Cambridge may be not alone in suffering from this illness, but it is uniquely well suited to resist it. High population growth, a large student population, and a near-constant influx of tourists means that businesses operating in the city centre get to benefit from levels of foot traffic hard to replicate outside of London.

“Landlords and the City Council are indiscriminately degrading the character of Cambridge”

This fact makes it all the more disappointing that landlords and the city council’s planning committee seem to be indiscriminately degrading the character of Cambridge. While I’m sure corporate franchises make great tenants who also pay in full and on time, they’re also flooding the city with low-quality food that makes bland an area otherwise bursting with life. It’s fitting that Five Guys, Taco Bell, and now Popeyes all seem to be laying siege to Market Square, working to cut off bloodflow to one of the city’s most lively culinary nerve centres.


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The corporatization of Cambridge is nothing new; every other door seems to lead to a chain-owned pub. What is alarming about this new American invasion is its garishness: at least the city’s plethora of Greene King pubs tend to each have some unique sense of identity, and even the Regal manages to be at once very much a Wetherspoon’s and something of a Cambridge icon. The only thing that distinguishes Cambridge’s Taco Bell from any other Taco Bell in the world is just how oddly out-of-place it feels.

When I, like plenty of other Americans, moved to the UK, I came expecting a new country to explore and a new culture to ingratiate myself into. What I arrived to instead was a mongrel combination: 21st century Britain mixed with some of the worst commercialist tendencies I thought I had left behind back home. Hand-wringing over the Americanisation of this country dates back well over a century, but to be importing fast food, of all things, seems a particularly dire sign for the future. Let’s hope that the next big transatlantic shipment – be it paranoid politics, gun violence, pickup trucks, culture wars, or some unholy cocktail thereof – isn’t any worse.