PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- Casual dining, like Jennifer Aniston, was once a fresh-faced, flair-wearing American ideal. Now they're both older versions of themselves who can't seem to shake their former identities.Around the time Aniston was playing Ron Livingston's server dream girl in the 1999 movie Office Space, Aniston was still playing Rachel Green on NBC's Friends, dating Brad Pitt and preparing to marry him a year later and was still on the sunny, The Good Girl/ Friends With Money side of a budding film career. Meanwhile, the strip-mall restaurants that Aniston's Office Space character lampooned by wearing 37 pieces of flair as a waitress for "Chotchkie's" were still offering standard, reheated American fare at reasonable prices and were still a homogenous, stuff-on-the-walls bar and grill experience that held a special place in the heart of Anytown USA.
So what happened? How did Aniston turn all of that promise into an unrelenting series of romantic comedies featuring the likes of Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart and Adam Sandler? How did can't-fail casual dining, according to market research firm NPD Group, start losing customers for nearly four years straight. Because the American consumer's association with certain events or points in time traps both people and companies in the amber of memory and holds them there regardless of how many years have elapsed or how much change they've undergone. In Aniston's case, the steady syndication of Friends and refusal to do much television since kept her alter ego Rachel Green far more visible than Aniston was. Sure, the American public dwelt on her breakup with Pitt and his ensuing relationship with Angelina Jolie, but every Thanksgiving they're reminded that Pitt and Aniston were once so romantically, comedically in love that they set it to a laugh track. Those Friends reruns and memories of Aniston and Pitt as U.S. royalty are the warm security blanket that keeps tucking in a certain segment of the population each night.
Meanwhile, as long as casual dining restaurants kept the prices low, the spirits high and the drinks flowing, America could always return to the places it spent its high school weekends, its Thanksgiving weekend homecomings and its airport layovers.