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Drive-thrus land on endangered list


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Franchise Times’ Tom Kaiser is on the lookout for urban tales in franchising.

Photo by Nicholas Upton

There are few things more American than sitting in your car (or big truck) and barking your food order into the microphone at a drive-thru restaurant. More cheeseburgers, please! However quintessential the experience, many cities are outlawing the construction of new drive-thru businesses and other auto-oriented facilities in the name of urban development and pedestrian safety.

Is this a bad thing? Maybe not.

Many municipalities ban the construction of new McDonald’s or Walmarts solely to preserve their small-town charm, but an early proposal from Minneapolis to expand the number of pedestrian overlay districts is a different animal—and disconcerting for the franchise restaurant crowd.

Pedestrian overlay districts are areas intended to have active street life partially through the prohibition of high-impact and car-based uses. They are one of several tools for cities to ensure dense areas see similarly urban development in their bounds.

This proposal has yet to be finalized, although various stakeholders like the Minneapolis Star Tribune already labeled this as dangerous social engineering.

More reasonable, Tamra Kennedy is a multi-unit Taco John’s franchisee with nine locations in the metro area. She’s concerned businesses that want to be a part of the community would be blocked out by the proposal.

McDonald's

This McDonald’s in a busy Minneapolis neighborhood has a drive-thru in the back.

“The challenge of combining cars and people on roads, sidewalks and parking lots is not a new one,” she said. “If the goal is to serve the community, which includes the convenience of drive-thru businesses, then groups can work together and lead creative change in urban design.”

Kennedy added drive-thru restaurants, by design, reduce the amount of parking restaurants need, which is a net gain for the city. Her one location without a drive-thru makes less money than others, so her plans currently only consider locations with drive-thru access.

Beyond the controversy, the goals of the council members pushing the proposal are worthy: ensuring valuable parcels of land see their highest, best use, and improving pedestrian safety in areas with higher-than-average pedestrian traffic counts.

“We often see drive-thrus incorporated into low intensity use designs that are more appropriate for a suburban, auto-oriented community than a dense, urban, walkable neighborhood,” said council member Lisa Bender. “It’s more about the design of buildings and wanting to create a consistent building frontage along wide commercial corridors instead of a small, single-story building surrounded by surface parking.”

Bender added her desire to avoid unnecessary regulations that would restrict the city’s growth plans, but often fields complaints from residents who are hot and bothered when smaller-scale developments are proposed.

Drive-thrus incorporated into mixed-use, multi-story developments were less of an issue, she said, and added it was possible the final proposal might ultimately loosen restrictions for drive-thrus as long as they are part of something bigger and complimentary to the urban fabric.

Country dwellers may recoil at the thought, but there’s good reason for residents to advocate for larger developments. Restricting the growth of new housing units leads to rapidly rising rental rates and property values. San Francisco—where dilapidated shacks on tiny lots sell for eye-watering prices—is a prime example.

Allow me to propose another way of looking at this. Cities that outlaw low-intensity uses in pedestrian districts are giving these auto-focused businesses the chance to reinvent themselves for a changing world.

Taco Bell’s city-focused Cantina concept (no drive-thru, added booze, tapas-style menu) was designed explicitly for dense, walkable areas. I don’t get excited by the thought of another Grilled Stuft burrito, but this modern new Taco Bell concept sounds more interesting than just another drive-thru—and think of all the city centers this would thrive in.

Not all cities are Minneapolis or Chicago or San Francisco. There will always be a place for car-focused businesses, especially out in the ‘burbs. A few weekends ago, two crunchy friends of mine who are new parents told me how delighted they were at seeing a drive-thru Jimmy John’s by my house for their drive home.

There’s no escaping the fact that single-story, car-focused, drive-thru businesses exact a toll on urban neighborhoods. Every curb cut slows traffic and forces cars and people (both famously inattentive) to clumsily intersect. Building single-story structures in dense areas riles up neighbors who moved to an area for its density, rather than despite it. Keeping taxes low in cities means expanding the tax rolls and cramming new stuff into underused parcels.

As urban living becomes increasingly popular, the number of cities implementing proposals like this will only grow. Baldwin Park, California, home to the country’s first-ever drive-thru (In-N-Out) in 2010 outlawed construction of new drive-thrus, and many other Californian cities have followed suit. While many trends start in California, cities in all corners of the country have restricted new drive-thrus. At the same time, commercial developers aren’t building nearly the number of single-story retail centers they did before the recession. 

Rather than fight these trends, franchise companies reliant on drive-thrus need to adapt their business models to fit big cities. Partner with a developer to build a mixed-use facility, rather than one store surrounded by parking. Make your food so appealing people are willing to walk or take the bus/train to get it. Sign up for food-on-demand services like Seamless or BiteSquad to bring your food to your customers, rather than the other way around.

Fighting change often has a characteristic death rattle sound that reflects poorly on a given business or industry. Innovation always wins over those digging their heels in to prevent progress.

Tom Kaiser is assistant editor of Franchise Times, and writes The Urbane Franchisor column in each issue. Send stories about franchises adapting to young people and/or resurgent cities to tkaiser@franchisetimes.com.

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