When a Chipotle Mexican Grill opened in February at the Orchard Center Mall on Cherry Hill Road in Silver Spring, customers lined up around the block. Three months later, about 7 p.m. on a Friday, the burrito outlet is still busy, with a line of about 30 customers waiting as long as 20 minutes to get food.
"If there were more variety, it probably wouldn't be so crowded in here," said Silver Spring resident Bret Fund.
Across the parking lot is a Friendly's. A handful of sit-down restaurants dot nearby Route 29. Fast-food fare such as McDonald's and KFC are easier to find, but they don't satisfy everyone's tastes.
"Boston Market doesn't cut it for atmosphere," said longtime Silver Spring resident Dwayne Washington.
County officials have heard such complaints for years, and after spending much of the past decade focusing on reviving downtown Silver Spring, they are trying in earnest to attract national restaurant chains to Route 29 between the Capital Beltway and Route 198.
As part of the new initiative, the county will dispatch a delegation to the International Council of Shopping Centers convention, which starts Sunday in Las Vegas. Local developers and residents couldn't be more pleased with the county's new sales pitch.
"I think the county has given us short shrift for too long," said Jaclyn Leimbach, a Hillandale resident for 30 years. "We really need some restaurants."
"The area hasn't had an identity as its own market," said Chris Jones, president of the Bethesda-based BMC Property Group, which owns the Burtonsville Shopping Center.
About 90,000 households live within five miles of the targeted portion of Route 29. A third of those households have annual incomes of $100,000 or more. But for the past 30 years, developers have tended to stay away from the area. During the 1970s, it was because of high interest rates and a sewer moratorium. Starting in the late '80s, it was because of a county-imposed moratorium on development. That moratorium will end July 1, county planning officials said.
National chain restaurants had reasons for avoiding Route 29. County regulations limit the number of liquor licenses a restaurant chain can have at one time in the county. Restaurants that had a location in Bethesda, for example, would have to wait at least a year before obtaining an additional liquor license for a new location. Another factor keeping restaurants at bay was a dearth of lunchtime customers.
Those impediments will soon be gone. In late March, the General Assembly passed a measure that designated the Route 29 corridor between the Beltway and Route 198 an "enterprise zone," giving restaurants wishing to locate there the ability to obtain an additional liquor license.
The Food and Drug Administration is also consolidating its offices on a 130-acre campus in White Oak, on the site of a former Navy installation. The FDA compound has 2,000 FDA employees, and when work is completed in 2010, it will have about 8,000 employees.
The county is piggybacking on the FDA's arrival by building a science and technology campus, similar to the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center along Interstate 270 in Rockville. Groundbreaking is scheduled for next year.
Several commercial property owners are eager to accommodate the onslaught of office workers. The Duffie Co., which owns the Hillandale Shopping Center at the Beltway and New Hampshire Avenue, is seeking county approval to develop a 70,000- to 90,000-square-foot Class A office building with a street-level restaurant on the site of a former Shoney's. Grosvenor International, which owns the WesTech Business Park off Route 29, is developing a four-acre restaurant park across the street from WesTech with room for three restaurants and retail.
The Burtonsville Shopping Center at Route 29 and Route 198 will also be redeveloped, Jones said. BMC has plans to take the mall upscale and incorporate elements of town center developments, including white-tablecloth restaurants.
"We want to make Burtonsville a dining destination . . . like Bethesda, on a smaller scale, of course," Jones said.
Paving the way for development is a dedicated group of area residents who lobbied for and continue to help coordinate the multitude of projects.
The effort began about 10 years ago, when the Navy announced it was closing its Naval Surface Warfare Center between New Hampshire Avenue and Route 29. A group of residents calling themselves Labquest set out to persuade the FDA, which has offices along Rockville Pike, to relocate all its employees to White Oak.
"We decided what we wanted. We wanted a campus-like setting. We wanted the FDA," said Betsy Bretz, who chairs Labquest. "We think the FDA is the most important federal agency -- not to offend anyone. They set the health standards for our country. When I saw they were in 48 buildings in 28 locations, I was appalled. You can't run an agency that way."
After surveying FDA employees, Labquest formed a subgroup two years ago called the FDA Amenities Group. Its sole mission is improving the quality of restaurants along Route 29 for FDA workers. The Amenities Group was instrumental in getting the liquor license legislation passed.
"We know we won't ever compete with Rockville Pike," Bretz said. "But the FDA employees deserve to have a nice place. They're used to it, and they should have it here, too."