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Defining 'Fast Food' Is Slow Work
After H Street Uproar, District Longs for Clarity in an Order of Fries

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."

The reformers sought brevity, not to mention clarity. No longer would the regulations focus on how food is prepared or spatial relations. In their revised version, they sought to capture the way the establishment operates.

So:

Under the proposed change, you'll know you're in a fast-food eatery if a) there's a drive-through window; or b) you pay before you eat; or c) you eat off paper plates, and your utensils are of the plastic variety.

Then there was another issue: What about those establishments that aren't fast-food or restaurants, such as ice cream parlors, latte bars and delis? What do they have in common? Answer: no cooking on premises. And so a new, pithy, rolls-right-off-your tongue category was born: "the prepared food shop."

Was that the end of the discussion?

Not quite.

The Office of Planning has to present proposed changes to the District Zoning Commission, a process that began this month. H Street community leaders say they generally support the proposal. So does the restaurant industry, with a couple of quibbles (offered up by a lawyer, of course).

People don't just eat off plates. "What about bowls?" asked Andrew Kline, who represents the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, which has a membership of 650 dining establishments.

Another problem: The term "fast food" is so yesterday. "It's called quick-serve now," Kline said, citing no particular reason except that "things change."

The regulations would affect nearly a dozen corridors, such as H Street, where fast-food establishments coexist with residences and have to obtain a special permit before opening. Portions of Good Hope Road SE, Wisconsin Avenue, Georgia Avenue, Florida Avenue NE and Rhode Island Avenue NE are among the streets to which the rules would apply.

If the proposed definition had been in place a year ago, Parker said, the Cluck U Chicken franchise would not have been allowed to open without being subjected to neighborhood review.

Bernard Gibson, owner of the Cluck-U franchise, chuckled at the notion that the fracas over his business might inspire actual governmental reform.

"I wish it wasn't me," he said. "It cost a lot of money to defend myself."

His business is doing well, he said. So well that upstairs from the Cluck-U, he is about to open a tavern, with 17 tables, a 50-foot-long bar and waiters and waitresses serving up steaks and shrimp and pasta.

"The neighborhood said they wanted more sit-down," he said. "I decided to give them what they asked for."

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