By Julie Sturgeon Contributing writer
15 Feb 2008
Sunset magazine has awarded it “Best Downtown in the West,” thanks to its atmosphere of small shops, fed by happy pedestrians, many of whom arrived on these sidewalks via mass transportation or bicycle. It’s a Tree City USA community where big box stores are shoved to the suburb fringes.
And, since 1982, drive-thrus have been banned in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
“The owners of a McDonald’s franchise came to the city council during public comment in recent times to ask for drive-thrus, and the council majority refused to agenda the discussion,” said eight-year council member Christine Mulholland. “I don’t see any encouragement or direction to make a change to our current ordinance.”
Other pockets of communities in Southern California and Canada have begun to take up this same cry, citing a need to reduce greenhouse gases and pedestrian safety concerns.
Officials in chic areas such as Buckhead in Atlanta and Alexandria, Va., have floated the idea as part of an overall restoration design. But no matter the reasoning, “it’s pretty unanimous here — we do not think it’s a good idea,” said Mike Vermillion, the Friendly and Fast Platform leader for Burger King franchises.
For starters, most Burger King units generate between 50 and 60 percent of their daily total sales averages at the drive-thru. That’s just the tip of the iceberg: The National Restaurant Association’s 2007 Quickservice Restaurant Survey reveals that 89 percent of operators believe their drive-thrus will represent an even larger portion of sales in 2008. That alone speaks volumes for its value to the American consumer, insiders argue. Don’t forget, these are the same consumers demanding car manufacturers install more cup holders, Vermillion points out.
Indeed, at a meeting in San Luis Obispo, one disabled woman spoke about her experiences driving to another town to eat at a Carl’s Jr., as getting in and out of her vehicle was such a physical commitment. Mulholland also hears from parents frustrated with the hassle of unbuckling children from their car seats. She’s sympathetic, but firm.
“We are all talking about obesity issues, so the idea of getting the kids out of the car and moving probably isn’t a bad idea. I would encourage more pedestrian friendliness in the way people build their towns,” she said.
And while it’s not possible to measure a town’s business loss from drive-thru bans, a case can be made that local governments that take this tack lose sales taxes today and business investment tomorrow, said Craig Prusher, Burger King’s vice president for government relations. After all, QSR units sans drive-thrus require bigger parking lots to accommodate customers, which requires more money to buy property in the first place.
Are we choking on drive-thrus?
But the biggest battle tends to center on the ecology front, even though definitive studies and statistics from the EPA are MIA. Mulholland admits a California Polytechnic State University student presented a large study a few years ago as part of his argument to rock the status quo, saying the number of low-emission vehicles on the roads today make the drive-thru ban a dinosaur. Yet she can’t confirm this is even why the town kicked drive-thrus to the curb. According to the records in her office, the reason behind the ordinance approval is “unknown.”
Such vagueness doesn’t surprise Jonpaul Leski, president and CEO of Geneva Enterprises in Atlanta, which owns seven Hardee’s units. He holds a doctorate degree in technology, and has worked behind the scenes consulting on how to measure things such as emissions and chemical impacts. His digging hasn’t pinpointed any definitive connection between drive-thrus and higher greenhouse gas emissions. Ditto for Prusher.
If there were studies that suggest a greater carbon emission from waiting in the drive-thru as opposed to stopping and restarting the car, I’d be interested in seeing them. I have not,” he said.
On the other hand, that probably doesn’t matter — scientists look at an overall measurement that would include everything dumped into the atmosphere.
“They say a little piece of this and a little piece of that adds to X, so everything helps,” Leski said. The federal government backs this approach, doling out funding and grants to states that devote themselves to combat global warming. “So if the state of California, for example, will get X millions of dollars if it pushes for change, well of course it’s going to do whatever it takes,” he said.
But it’s not an EPA struggle that has Leski’s attention. That honor belongs to the budding fight between smokers and nonsmokers in Illinois, where it is illegal to light up within 15 feet of a door or window. Cigarette smoke has rolled into units via the drive-thru, putting owners in danger of paying a $2,500 fine for every occurance. So far, managers are hoping courtesy signs asking drivers not to smoke will help, but the grumbling about personal rights and privacy has begun.
“If somebody said, let’s ban drive-thrus nationwide, that would cripple the QSR industry,” Leski said. “But I think we better have a Plan B in place, because this is creeping up on us.” He advocates restaurant owners and franchisees rally together to brainstorm new promotional campaigns to entice people inside, to pave an alternative relationship should the drive-thru one day disappear.
Prusher isn’t anxious. “We will monitor the situation of course, but at this point, it doesn’t look like there’s a national movement. For that reason alone, it would be hard to say this is something we view as picking up a lot of steam.”