Canary in the Coal Mine

Idiom in the News: Canary in the Coal Mine, by ShareAmerica, 11/12/14

canary in a coal mine (plural canaries in a coal mine or canaries in coal mines)

  1. (idiomatic) Something whose sensitivity to adverse conditions makes it a useful early indicator of such conditions; something which warns of the coming of greater danger or trouble by a deterioration in its health or welfare.

Last summer, while attending a Tibetan teaching in the east bay, I spent two nights in a motel about 30 miles east, to save money on room cost. The exit was Cordelia, familiar I’m sure to everyone who travels on Highway 80 to or from the San Francisco area. There are lots of gas stations, fast food places, and motels.

I was surprised to see that the one sit down restaurant – a Denny’s – had closed, after decades as a fixture at that exit. I reflected then that it seemed analogous to the economic “hollowing out of the middle,” you see in department stores: Walmart and Target appear to be doing well, as are high end boutiques, but the mainstream “mall anchors” – Macy’s, Penny’s, and the late-great Sears, are struggling or gone.

Similarly, on the food front, fast is thriving, as are the kind of restaurants you visit for anniversaries and birthdays, but the “family style restaurant,” the place for a Saturday morning breakfast, or a casual lunch, or a visit with a friend over coffee and pie, appears to be in trouble.

That hunch, sparked by a defunct Denny’s last year, has materialized with a vengeance this summer in the immediate neighborhood.

In July, Mary and I drove to the Applebee’s in Gold River and found it closed. At the start of August, looking forward to lunch on “free pie Monday,” we stopped at Marie Calendar’s on Sunrise – a restaurant that had been in the same spot since we moved here 34 years ago – and it was gone. Disappointed, we drove to the Strings Italian restaurant on Douglas, in Roseville, and it had closed!

Disappointed, we finally settled on a sure thing, the Coco’s at Madison and Sunrise, which is usually bustling, where we’d also been going for 34 years, often enough to know most of the staff by name.

Yesterday we learned that this restaurant will close for good after business this coming Wednesday!

None of these names will mean much to those outside this area, so let me describe it like this: there’s a mile long section of Sunrise Boulevard that passes between two shopping centers. A few years ago, there were eight family style restaurants – nine if you count the not-so-good Chinese place – along that mile. As of Thursday, there will be just two (not counting the Chinese place).

By Thursday, you’ll be see the empty shell of Coco’s line with the empty shells of Lyon’s, Logan’s, Marie Calendar’s, The China Garden, and across the street, The Elephant Bar, (with an empty Sears in the background). I thought about taking pictures for this post, but the idea was too depressing.

It’s depressing not just because now I don’t know where to go for a slice of key lime pie or an affordable salmon dinner, but because these were some of the places where we lived our lives over the last few decades:  when a friend needed to talk, or someone came to visit from out of town. When something required a celebration, or simply because it was cold and rainy and you needed light and warmth and an unusually good cup of restaurant coffee.

On a more pragmatic front, the likelihood of a bond yield curve inversion – an historically accurate leading recession indicator – was old news on financial websites by the time it actually happened and hit the mainstream press. And to the best of my knowledge, every single time, over the last 100 years, that Republicans have controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, as they did from 2016-2018, a recession has followed.

While these indicators may be accurate, they remain abstract. Empty restaurants and strip malls are not. They are on-the-ground indicators that something has run aground. While I was writing this post, my sister-in-law called and said the same thing is happening down south where she lives.

A consumer society is prosperous when large numbers of people have money to spend and the willingness to spend it. I don’t think anyone has given up the desire to take the family out to eat, but it seems that can no longer do so as often as they did in the past.

All of these places which recently closed survived the 2008 crash. By that benchmark, what’s coming may be worse. I think this canary is dying.

6 thoughts on “Canary in the Coal Mine

  1. I agree we are in terrible trouble in this country right now, but, according to my research, both parties can take credit for recessions over the last century. That said, having a total whack job in the white house sure isn’t helping anything. The good news is there are some terrific candidates in the mix for the next election. I am optimistic.

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    • I think our belief that a president can move the economic needle that much is overblown, except perhaps on the downside. I hear again and again that markets hate uncertainty above all things, and our loose cannon-in-chief generates nothing but uncertainty, but some of our current economic woes appear to have been decades in the making.

      I recall the sense of national unified purpose that led to the moon landing 50 years ago, and wonder what it would take for such a sense of purpose to motivate the nation, say, to address our climate issues. I can only think of two things – wisdom or disaster. Hopefully not too many more disasters to spark new reflections on what works and what does not!

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  2. I read an article in the UK press recently about the “quiet” turndown in Scottish Highlands tourism (2 to 3%) over the last 18 months – not big enough to worry about (?!) – and I see the slow closures of main street leisure businesses (almost always replaced with gambling or vaping shops) and I think the answer lies with a figure in Morgan’s article. 34. Yes, 34. He, and presumably his friends, had lived in the same area for 34 years. They are now as a group looking forward to retirement and are very carefully managing their disposable income. The younger generation want the excitement and vibe of a different kind of outlet for their eating and entertainment but they don’t have anywhere near the disposable income that the older generation have.

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  3. Yesterday (8/27), I spoke to a financial advisor about several topics, and mentioned what I had observed with the local restaurants. He mentioned the “Restaurant Performance Index.” Values above 100 are considered expansion, and those below, contraction, which the advisor said is a leading indicator of a recession. It appears that the most recent month covered in this index snapshot is June, 2019, where the index had fallen slightly to 101.2. It will be interesting to see how the chart looks when July and August are factored in. https://restaurant.org/research/economy/RPI

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