There is a massive difference! Independents every time. Chains have standardised recipe books across the group and some of them get stuff pre made in centralised kitchens. Some are better then others, but for me there is no comparison. I am talking about cooking though, Health and Safety, management and administrative matters are probably better organised in the chain situation as it is corporate culture.....
You can learn a lot from both. Not to mention hotels, resorts, country clubs and institutions.
Chains and corporations, as mentioned, will show you how to organize and systematize things, familiarize you with good cleaning practices, ServSafe practices and good general safety practices. In a well run corporate atmosphere, customer service is also a big focus where an independent may not have the same understanding of what customer service should mean.
Management may mean nothing more than following the corporate rules but you can also rely on that as both a guideline for yourself and the employees because no one is inventing things as they go.
Independents will introduce you to a more varied assortment of foods and cooking techniques. You will learn to see what good products are and what makes them that way. The menu may contain items requiring different techniques and when the menu changes, the necessary techniques will change.
With corporations, what you see is what you get. The rules, regulations and guidelines are well thought out, proven and immutable. So even management is required to follow them. Any one who doesn't eventually gets the door. There are, of course, exceptions but they are easier to spot.
A corporate place will most likely be very clean. An independent may be a filthy mess with no one interested or understanding of the need to keep it clean.
With independents, you really can't tell what you are walking in to. The owner or chef or manager may be a gambler, a drunk, lazy, crazy or just plain incompetent. They may be under financed, wasteful or clueless. There may be rules and regulations created that are foolish, stupid or useless. The idiot manager may be fooling around with an employee. The incompetent jerk who runs the place may be the owner's spouse, brother, sister, cousin or parent. You may be employed for six days or six years before the place closes.
There are corporate franchises, well run, organized and profitable with a great crew and a pleasure to work for. There are franchises within the same corporation that are poorly run, filthy and miserable places to work.
There are independents that run like a swiss watch, efficient, clean, profitable and a great learning environment. They have great employees who all share a positive work attitude and a genuine team atmosphere. They might serve three star cuisine or they might serve the best hamburgers and shakes in town.
Do as much research as you can about where you plan to apply. Visit the restaurant and eat there if possible. Talk to the employees, read reviews.
Wherever you decide to apply and should you get the job, remember that you can learn what to do or what not to do. You may find someone who is willing and able to take the time to teach you. You may find no one to teach you. Be observant and learn everything you can about what is good and bad about that particular place. What will be most important is how you conduct yourself. If you don't like what you see, remember that you chose to work there. Be the best employee you can for that place. Move on if necessary but with no acrimony or poor attitude.
If they hand you a book of rules, regulations and recipes walk away. Pick a position/operation that lets you explore your own creativity, skills and knowledge in this business. You want a position where your ideas matter. You want the operation to reflect your vision, personality and mindset. All that being said, learn all this on someone else's dime. You will learn how to be more structured in a Corporate setting. They teach you how to run a failsafe operation. Right now you need to learn how to manage people, and get along with FOH. You need to know how hire and fire people. you need structure and working in this kind of atmosphere for the time being. During this time copy and collect all these forms so you can use them in other operations. This will help you format your own forms for different operations while moving up the ladder. So, when I said if the operation your applying for now hands you a book of rules, regulations and recipes that fine. You don't want this kind of operation when you want to use your own culinary brain. Don't feel like your wasting time doing this now. The knowledge you obtain now will be priceless in the future. To this day I look back at what I learned in the beginning of my career.