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Defining 'Fast Food' Is Slow Work

A Big Mac, Coke and fries are shown at a McDonald's Thursday, Oct. 20, 2005 in New York. McDonald's Corp., of Oak Brook, Ill., reported a $735 million third-quarter net profit Thursday that was down 6 percent from the previous year, when the fast-food chain benefited from a hefty tax gain. (Mark Lennihan - AP)

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By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007

Ask almost anyone to define a fast-food restaurant and they'll likely come up with an answer in far less time than it takes to devour a Big Mac.

How long did it take the District government?

Try eight months. And the job's not even done yet.

Drafting a legal definition, it seems, is not easy, especially when the authors include planners and neighborhood activists, not to mention those masters of mind-numbing jargon, lawyers.

"Defining anything is complicated," said Travis Parker, who, as a District development review specialist, knows from experience.

This particular exercise, which could make it easier for neighborhoods to object to fast-food eateries, was inspired by a tempest on H Street NE last year. Community leaders insisted that a new Cluck-U Chicken franchise was a fast-food joint and should have been subjected to neighborhood review before opening.

But District inspectors walked into the same eatery and decided that Cluck-U fit the definition of a restaurant as set down by District code, just like The Palm or Cafe Milano, only without waiters, $30 entrees and well-appointed bathrooms.

Neighborhood leaders were baffled. They hoped to stop H Street from becoming overrun by fast food. They appealed Cluck-U's designation but lost before the Board of Zoning Adjustment.

"We were astounded that no one could see that Cluck-U was a fast-food restaurant," said Nick Alberti, an advisory neighborhood commissioner.

Instead of drowning their sorrow in a bucket of fried chicken, the community leaders, and, later, District planners, immersed themselves in a more arduous challenge: reforming a code that was drafted in the 1980s.

To do so, they did not set foot in McDonald's, Popeyes, Burger King, Checkers or any of the other over-the-counter eateries that have become a staple of many a modern appetite. Instead, they examined zoning codes in something like 50 cities and towns across the country, from New York to Lincoln, Neb., to Los Angeles.

What they concluded was that the District code was far too vague and cumbersome, with its references to "ready-to-consume food" and "customer queuing" occupying "greater than ten percent of the total floor space on any one (1) floor that is accessible to the public."

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