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Fast Food Chains: A Review of Their Evolution and Visual Impact on Communities 

02-08-2019 11:14

Fast-food chains have had a great visual impact on nearly every community in the United States. They differ in appearance from local restaurants because of two major factors: First, fast-food chains are designed to get people in and out quickly in order to accommodate high customer volume. The drive-through windows, garish interiors, and lightning- quick service provide a sharp contrast to the less hectic atmosphere of local restaurants. Second, fast-food chains are successful to a great extent because they sell a nationally recognized name brand. The uniform architecture and signage of the chains serve the dual purpose of identifying and advertising their product. In fact, their look has become so pervasive and symbolic of speed, modernity, and uniform quality, that even local businesses have adopted the chain store “look.”

The economic benefits that these businesses bring to the community are not without repercussions. A serious side effect of this ever-growing phenomenon is communities’ loss of individuality and uniqueness. As Stan Luxenberg observes in Roadside Empires, “By the 1980s people in Abilene, Texas, and Roanoke, Virginia, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Columbus, Ohio, all patronized identical-looking businesses. Frequent travelers would wake up in a chain motel uncertain where they were. Shaking sleep out of their eyes, they could peer across the parking lot at the rows of outlets and still have no clue to the city’s or region’s identity” (6).

According to a study conducted by the accounting firm of Laventhol & Horwath and by the International Franchise Association, fast- food franchises will be among the five fastest- growing franchises in the 1990s (Whittemore 69). One of the concerns of the preservation community will be how to mitigate the potential visual and physical damage to significant buildings caused by this growth. Prince Charles recently commented on this issue in an address to the American Institute of Architects: “Much of the commercial building of today bears as much relation to architecture as advertising slogans bear to literature . .. [The] buildings seldom bear any meaningful relationship to the areas in which they are placed” (5). [Refer to Figs. 1-3.]

While the mansard roof of a typical McDonald’s restaurant or the elaborate “Victorian” signage of a Wendy’s franchise are considered inviolate corporate trademarks, some communities have been able to successfully adapt franchise design with minimal adverse effects to individual structures and the surrounding area.

As the ubiquitous chains find their way into older commercial and residential areas it is incumbent upon the preservation community to familiarize itself with this industry, develop appropriate zoning mechanisms to control its growth, and collect good examples of compatible fast-food restaurants in new and existing structures. This paper will discuss the impact of the franchising phenomenon, especially that of fast-food chains. Specific attention will be paid to the evolution and importance of architecture to the industry. McDonald’s will be highlighted as representative of the fast-food field. Finally, selected zoning ordinances will be examined and examples of architecturally successful and not-so-successful fast-food franchises in Texas and New Mexico will be reviewed.

Franchising has been in existence since the mid-nineteenth century; General Motors established one of the first successful franchise operations in 1898. The system was quite simple: GM, acting as a franchisor, granted dealers the right to sell their automobiles as franchisees. This arrangement allowed the company to expand into numerous retail outlets, despite a lack of capital needed to finance such rapid growth on its own. This type of franchise system is still universally used by the automobile industry, as well as by service station dealers and major oil companies, and by soft-drink bottlers and manufacturers.

Business-format franchising began in the early 1900s and is used extensively in the fast-food industry. In this type of franchising, an entrepreneur (i.e., the franchisor) who has developed a successful formula for making a product and selling it, offers his expertise to a potential franchisee for a fee and a continuing percentage of sales. The franchisor provides the technical information and training necessary to build and operate a replica of the parent company’s outlet. This enables the franchisor to open identical units across the country without incurring any direct financial risk. The relationship between franchisor and franchisee in business-format franchising is ongoing, consisting of not just a product and trademark, but a complete business concept with marketing plan, operating manuals, and quality control as well (U.S. Dept, of Commerce “Franchising” 3).

One of the earliest business-format franchises was started in 1902 by forty druggists who formed a cooperative. Each owner renamed his drugstore Rexall and began to share manufacturing costs. Soon they were selling the right to use the Rexall name, distinctive signage, and products to independent franchisees. In the 1920s Howard Johnson also turned to franchising as a means for growth when the Depression altered his plans for expansion of his popular soda fountain/restaurant/motel concept. By 1940 there were 100 Howard Johnson’s in operation, each with the signature orange roof to attract travelers.

Following the success of these pioneers, many new franchise companies emerged after World War II. Most of today’s huge chains—Holiday Inn, AAMCO Transmissions, Roto-Rooter, Dunkin ’ Donuts, Mc- Donald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken for example—were created in the 1950s and early 1960s. These businesses benefitted tremendously from franchising. As Luxenberg notes in Roadside Empires, “The growth of the companies was speeded enormously by franchising. Towns where no chains had existed could suddenly be blanketed with outlets in a couple of years” (29).

Much of this growth can be attributed to the appeal that the franchising system has for new business owners. While there is a ninety-two percent failure rate for all new businesses in the first five years, the failure rate for a new franchise outlet is a comparatively low twenty-three percent (Kelley 48). The chances for success are greatly enhanced because the chain owner is selling a packaged concept with a catchy, perhaps well-known name, distinctive operating method, attention-grabbing signage, and uniform architecture.

By offering the consumer a low-cost product of uniform quality through a systematic operation, chains have continued to appeal to an expanding market. There are now more than half a million franchise outlets in the United States, with a new store opening at the incredible rate of one every seventeen minutes (Kelley 42). Franchises account for more than one third of all U.S. retail sales, and are expected to increase to fifty percent of retail sales in the 1990s (Baker 61). Total franchise sales reach nearly $600 billion annually (Kotite 65).

Fast-food chains constitute a large and highly visible segment of the franchising market. It is no coincidence that eight of the franchises ranked the top ten in the country for 1989 by Entrepreneur magazine were fast-food restaurants (97). The U.S. Census Bureau’s latest Economic Census shows fast-food franchises as the fastest-growing segment of the food-service industry (qtd. in APA “Billions” 1). Currently, there are more than 90,000 restaurant franchise outlets in the U.S., representing more than $63 billion in annual sales (U.S. Dept, of Commerce “Franchising” 28).

The earliest American restaurant chain originated in Kansas in 1876. An English immigrant named Frederick Henry Harvey opened his first restaurant in the railroad depot in Topeka to meet the travelers’ need for good food and dependable meal service. To speed up service, he implemented a system whereby meals could be ordered from the train and be ready when travelers arrived at the depot. When Harvey died in 1901 there were forty-five Harvey restaurants in twelve states along the railroad lines (Lang- don 5-7).

Initially there were few restaurants serving quick, inexpensive food. Some of the earliest examples included saloons, which provided free food to patrons, and horse-drawn lunch wagons dispensing sandwiches, beverages, and pie. In the late 1800s, diners and soda fountains began to appear. These innovations were followed by the utilitarian yet economical lunchrooms. Many of them developed into chains; there were more than 100 Thompson’s lunchrooms in a number of cities, eighty-six Childs Unique Dairy Lunch restaurants, and seventy-five Waldorf Lunch restaurants by 1920. Concentrated in urban areas, most of these made little architectural impression on their surroundings because they utilized portions of existing buildings and unobtrusive signage (Langdon 9-10). The only exception was the Childs chain, which used white tile on its facades whenever possible to foster the impression of cleanliness and modernity (Langdon 20).

On the other hand, Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain, which also began in the 1920s, boasted a completely distinctive look. Because his chain consisted of roadside eating places, Johnson developed an eye-catching look for the buildings in order to attract travelers. As Chester Liebs notes: “In pristine white clapboards, each Howard Johnson’s restaurant loomed at highway’s edge like a very tiny colonial mansion, its spreading hipped roof of jarring brilliant orange topped by a prim white cupola. Here and there were turquoise accents—an illuminated ladder sign in the shape of a broken pediment stood out front, with Simple Simon and the Pieman . . . logo of the chain since the early 1930s, on display above. The entire ensemble functioned as a beacon of traditional values, yet at the same time managed enough flash to catch the attention of the passing motorist” (202).

In the early years Howard Johnson’s restaurants varied somewhat in appearance from each other; in addition to a staff of house architects continually tinkering with the prototype, franchisees were free to add individual details as long as they held to the basic concept of white clapboard walls and orange tile roof with cupola (Liebs 203).

At the same time that roadside family restaurants like Howard Johnson’s grew in popularity, roadside food stands, the precursors of today’s multibillion-dollar fast-food industry, began to appear. At first these were individually owned stands of widely varying food quality and architectural design. Building shapes often echoed their function, such as an ice cream stand in the shape of a giant milk bottle or ice cream freezer. Another common marketing technique was to cover virtually every surface of an unprepossessing food stand with giant signs advertising menu items. These food stands seemed to crop up everywhere along the highways, resulting in public outcry over their lack of aesthetic value. In 1928, a competition sponsored in part by Mrs. John D. Rockefeller was billed as, “A far-reaching effort to clean up the miscellaneous hodgepodge of unsightly hot dog stands and the accompanying riffraff of roadside markets” (Liebs 206).

Urban food-stand chains also evolved that would greatly influence their roadside counterparts; in 1921 Edgar W. Ingram and Walter L.

Anderson began what would become the White Castle hamburger chain. They focused on offering decent, inexpensive food in a memorable setting. This setting took the form of small, freestanding “castles” of rock-faced concrete blocks with crenelated parapets and comer towers. Because of the negative perception of hamburger stands as unsanitary greasy spoons, white, symbolic of purity and cleanliness, was chosen for the name and building color. The white “castle” was easy to identify and served as an advertising tool. The chain was immediately successful; in fact, “the founders of the White Castle System developed a retail format that revolutionized the short-order trade. Within a few years, dozens of similar hamburger chains ... opened for the growing market of the quick-lunch trade” (Liebs 208).

The next critical innovation was the drive-in restaurant. Teenagers especially enjoyed the novelty of eating in their cars in the restaurant’s parking lot, with service provided by waitresses known as car hops. The Pig Stand Company of Dallas is considered the first drive-in restaurant, opening in September 1921 on the Dallas/Fort Worth highway (Liebs 208). It was not until the two McDonald brothers—Maurice and Richard— started a drive-in restaurant near Pasadena, California, in 1937, though, and began experimenting with food service, that the fast-food industry truly was underway. They limited the menu, broke food preparation down into simple, repetitive steps, eliminated the car hops, and made customers walk up to a take-out window to order. This self- service concept was revolutionary.

After initial resistance, the McDonalds’ new method of providing inexpensive, uniform-quality food in an unprecedented short time became extremely successful. They opened more outlets and gave away their trade secrets to a host of imitators. By the time the McDonald brothers began to seriously focus on franchising, teaming up with Ray Kroc in 1954, “entrepreneurs throughout the United States [had] launched competing chains with similar formulas” (Langdon 90). Most of these chains were admittedly based on the McDonald’s example.

As the number of chains grew, competition intensified. Restaurants were being built along highways, forcing franchisors to move toward “highly visible ‘image buildings’ almost of necessity. Bold structural or pseudostructural elements showed up even in restaurants that had first gotten along without them” (Langdon 93). In 1957 Burger King added huge, gaudy “handlebar” forms in bright red painted metal to the rooftops of its buildings. Dari-Delite, a division of the Good Humor Company of California, adopted shocking pink roofs in 1964. A few years before, in 1961, the Whataburger chain, headquartered in Corpus Christi, Texas, incorporated the tall orange- and-white-striped A-frame shape into their architectural prototype that is still used today (Langdon 94-96).

Whether conscious or not, these color choices reflected contemporary studies of the effects of color on human behavior. K. Goldstein’s research in 1942 showed that the color green operates in a calming fashion, while red excites and seems to advance toward the viewer rather than recede. L. B. Wexner in 1954 found her subjects perceived red as exciting and stimulating; blue and green as tender and soothing; and orange as upsetting and disturbing (Brebner 174-177). It is interesting to note that with the chains’ emphasis on fast service and their need for quick customer turnover, the “soothing” blue and green colors were conspicuously absent from their architecture and signage; chains opted instead for the “jarring” and “exciting” effects of the red and orange tones.

The brash spirit of the fast-food structures reflected the public’s mood; turning their backs on bleak memories of the Depression and war years, Americans looked forward to an exciting future of limitless possibilities. This optimism began to fade, however, with the beginning of the 1960s. As the public awoke to the threat of nuclear war and environmental pollution, the flamboyant look of the fast-food chains came to symbolize the nation’s recent history of thoughtless extravagances (Liebs 64-65).

In an address to American architects in 1961, Russell Kirk, a well-known political philosopher, commented that “we have done more damage to our country's artificial and natural beauty since the Second World War than we were able to accomplish in the one hundred years preceding” (qtd. in Langdon 97). For decades Americans had been told that anything new was superior, but now the negative effects of progress began to manifest themselves. Large sections of American cities had been tom down to build superhighways and high-rise buildings; urban renewal programs replaced historic structures with new projects, their very ‘newness’ serving as their only justification. Early in her husband’s presidency, Lady Bird Johnson began a public campaign to beautify America, especially the America visible from highways. The most flagrant offenders were billboards and junkyards, but the environmental consciousness that Mrs. Johnson embraced quickly developed into a critical way of looking at the totality of American surroundings. Drive-ins became a major target, and by the latter half of the 1960s the uproar against them resounded throughout the land. The complaints were directed at the drive- ins’ visual disorder—bright colors, treeless expanses of asphalt, litter left behind by customers (Langdon 73-74).

Public objection to the more than 35,000 drive- in restaurants in the country (Liebs 210) was so strong that even industry spokesmen admitted that there was a problem and urged restaurant owners to take corrective measures. An editor for Drive-In Restaurant magazine acknowledged that only a half a dozen of the more than 1,000 drive-ins he had visited in the past few years had litter-free, nicely landscaped grounds. The magazine began to emphasize the drive-ins’ need to seek respectability, in part by planting trees, shrubs, and flowers (Langdon 75-76). While this new environmental consciousness, as propounded by Mrs. Johnson, resulted in legislation for historic preservation and cleaning up air and water pollution, the public found a more immediately accessible issue to target: visual pollution along the highways (Liebs 65).

This backlash of public sentiment encouraged fast-food chains to tone down their buildings and signage to a less obtrusive visual style. Liebs describes this new style as the “Environmental Look” by which muted earth tones replaced the predominant bright colors and landscaping became the norm for fast-food franchise design (65). Kentucky Fried Chicken, the largest fast-food chain in 1969 with 1,800 restaurants (Luxenberg 21), adapted its distinctive red-and-white-striped look to changing public tastes. The bold red-and- white stripes that originally adorned the roof were now relegated to a diminutive hip roof incorporated into the sign. Most of the other chains also subordinated their signature motifs and colors into much smaller, more discreet elements.

No discussion of the fast-food franchising industry would be complete without a close look at McDonald’s. The pervasiveness of the giant chain has made it an integral part of American life; an astounding ninety-six percent of American consumers have eaten at a McDonald’s restaurant within the past year. Generations of children grow up avid McDonald’s fans. The convenience of satisfying a ‘Big Mac Attack’ guarantees their continued loyalty; more than half of the United States population lives within a three-minute drive of a McDonald’s unit. McDonald’s’ 19.5 percent share of the $45-billion fast-food market is more than the next three largest chains combined (Love 3).

Appropriately enough, it was Richard and Maurice “Mac” McDonald’s widely imitated, revolutionary food service concepts that touched off the entire fast-food business in the 1940s. McDonald's has since then continued to be an industry trendsetter. From the beginning other entrepreneurs have looked to McDonald’s for ideas to adopt for their own operations; these have ranged from food-preparation methods to quality controls, from menu items to architectural style.

In 1952, when the McDonald brothers were designing a new prototype for their franchises, they discarded the octagonal shape of their first outlet as well as a round building idea because both were already commonplace shapes for drive-ins in California. They finally settled on a rectangular building distinguished by a roof tilted upward in front and two large nonstructural parabolic arches projecting the length of the building. The exterior of the new building featured horizontally striped cherry red-and-white tile and yellow arches for contrast.

At that time the parabolic curve had been used by such architects as Eero Saarinen, Oscar Niemeyer, and Le Corbusier as emblematic of the modem spirit. The McDonald’s arches conveyed a feeling of skyward momentum, symbolic of an aerospace age in which man could hurtle himself into the heavens. The enthusiasm for bold forms and modem ways that McDonald’s exploited was by no means confined to the narrow ranks of the architectural profession. It had become part of the national outlook, an expression of the potential of the twentieth century (Langdon 85).

The look was quickly adopted by such other chains as Dari-Delite and Burger King, which added their own colorful nonstructural elements to rectangular buildings with tilted or overhanging roofs.

In 1961 Ray Kroc bought out the McDonald brothers ’ remaining interest in the restaurant chain. Even after he had sole control, Kroc kept the modem red-and-white-tiled prototype until forced to bow to public pressure in the mid-1960s. In his autobiography he related a McDonald’s executive’s complaint: “How can we go into these towns and propose to put up these slant-roof buildings, which are absolute eyesores?” (Kroc 143). Eventually, due to the country’s changing mood McDonald’s, like the other chains, found it necessary to conform to a toned-down, environmentally sensitive look. Recognizing the important role that architecture and signage had played in McDonald’s success, Kroc was apprehensive about the consequences of implementing the new design. In commenting on this decision, he said, “It was a drastic change in the image we’d established and in which we had a big investment, and Fred [Turner] and I had to fight like hell to push it through the board of directors’’(161).

Although some of the other chains had already begun similar changes, McDonald’s new look again became the model to follow. The revamped restaurants, with indoor dining areas and large window expanses, epitomized the Environmental Look: the red and white tile was replaced by beige and brown brick, the yellow arches that had been part of the building design were reborn as a dual- arched motif in the signage and the exaggerated, tilted roof became a double mansard roof. McDonald’s patented the new roof design in an attempt to prevent copying by competitors, but this strategy failed because while “the exact configuration of McDonald’s new roof may have been protected from infringement... its general character became virtually standard for fast-food architecture” (Langdon 140). Today the mansard roof can be seen on almost every type of commercial structure.

It would seem that the problem with business franchises, particularly fast-food restaurants, is their uninspired cookie-cutter approach to design issues and the detrimental effects of their compulsion to standardize existing buildings. Such practices are vital to the success of the fast-food industry because they keep construction costs down and ensure immediate identification of their product. However, while architectural standardization is of tremendous benefit to the franchise companies, the communities that support these businesses are rewarded with nondescript, commercial structures that have no contextual relationship to their surroundings. It would therefore appear that the problem with fast-food restaurants is not one of architectural incompatibility nor one of inappropriate signage: the problem with fast-food restaurants is the problem with local zoning regulations.

In order to discuss the zoning mechanisms that can be used to control fast- food restaurants it is necessary to define the term “fast-food restaurant.” While the definition varies, based on the ordinances reviewed for this study, there are several characteristics that distinguish fast-food restaurants from other eating establishments:

—The food that is served is packaged in such a manner that it may be eaten on- or off-premises;

—The food is prepared in a short amount of time;

—The food may be served from over a counter, from an outdoor service window, or from an automobile service window.

In addition to design compatability [sic] issues, it must be noted that fast-food restaurants create other problems. Due to drive- through activity, the most salient problem is increased vehicular traffic in the immediate area. The obvious effects of this proliferation are: 1) increased noise levels; 2) increased air pollution; and 3) increased parking violations (particularly in urban areas). Littering becomes an additional problem exacerbated by the fast-food restaurants’ reliance on plastic and paper packaging.

These problems are common characteristics of the strip shopping centers of suburban sprawl where the first fast-food restaurants thrived. However, these same problems are compounded, and therefore more evident, in the dense urban areas and rural downtowns that are being targeted by the fast-food industry (APA, “Billions” 1). As such, it becomes necessary to implement appropriate zoning measures to ensure adequate regulation of these businesses. In the following section, some of the zoning regulations that communities can use to control fast-food restaurants will be examined.

Signage: Signage ordinances can be particularly useful tools for controlling the unsightly visual blight caused by inappropriate signs. Fast- food chains use their colorful signs to lure would-be diners into their restaurants, often to the detriment of streetscapes and existing buildings. In Learning From Las Vegas, architect Robert Venturi observed that, “The sign at the front is a vulgar extravaganza, the building at the back, a modest necessity” (13). [Refer to Figs. 1-3.]

Most ordinances set standards for the illumination, type (i.e., freestanding, projecting, wall) and size of signs. The ordinance in Aspen, Colorado, is quite stringent. Individuals applying for sign permits must submit detailed blueprints of the sign design showing proposed dimensions, materials, colors, and how it will be illuminated. Any graphic design must be recommended for approval by the city planning director and approved by the zoning commission. The ordinance prohibits internal lighting and neon, limits lettering height to eighteen inches, and limits the size of the sign to “the area of the smallest geometric figure which encompasses the facing on a sign” (Aspen 5-81).

Signs within the Stiand/Mechanic Historic District in Galveston, Texas, must also adhere to strict design guidelines. Signs must be “in keeping with and complement the historic character and period of the building on which they are placed and the Strand/Mechanic Historic District, with respect to materials, colors, lettering, lighting, placement, etc.” (Galveston 163). The ordinance prohibits internally lighted, flashing, and neon signs. Freestanding and roof signs are also prohibited.

Signs on buildings that are individually designated or within historic districts in San Antonio, Texas, must be approved by the Board of Review for Historic Districts and Landmarks. The ordinance stipulates that signage “must be in proportion to the facade, respecting the size, scale, and mass of the facade, building height, and rhythms and sizes of window and door openings” (32).

Buildings that house one business are allowed one major sign per facade per structure and two minor signs. [Refer to Figs. 4 & 5.] Buildings housing more than one business are limited to one major and two minor signs per business. [Refer to Figs. 6 & 7.] Additionally, no sign may exceed fifty square feet. [Compare McDonald’s signage in Fig. 6 to that in Fig. 2.] Neon and internally-lighted signs are permitted. [Refer to Figs. 5 & 6, respectively.]

Site Plan Review: Some communities require that site plan information for certain activities be reviewed and approved before a special-use permit is granted so that the project can proceed. In the Town of Canandaigua, New York, the site plan approval process allows for some input in the final project by the planning board and general public. During preliminary site plan approval the board considers such issues as vehicular and pedestrian traffic access and circulation, parking, and the “location, arrangement, size, design, and general site compatibility of buildings, lighting, and signs” (Town of Canandaigua 105- 102). After a public hearing is conducted, the preliminary site plan is either approved, disapproved, approved with modifications, or approved by default after ninety days. Any modifications recommended by the board must be contained within the final detailed site plan before it is approved.

A proposed update to the Somerville, Massachusetts, zoning ordinance will be particularly effective if approved. In addition to submitting plans on the location, dimensions, and the proposed use of the land, fast-food restaurants may be asked to provide information on: the design features of any proposed structures; the location and significance of historic structures; demolition and construction procedures including impact mitigation measures; and traffic volume generated by the proposed use and projected future conditions. Approval of a special permit to fast-food restaurants by the Special Permit Granting Authority would be contingent upon the “need for such a facility in the neighborhood or in the city.” Furthermore, “... impacts on traffic circulation, parking, and visual, physical, or historical characteristics of the particular location shall not be detrimental” (Somerville 5-5).

Parking and Drive-Throughs: One of the least aesthetically pleasing features of a fast-food restaurant is its parking lot. Often used as trash receptacles by thoughtless patrons, these barren expanses of asphalt dismpt the streetscape and act as eyesores. Typically, ordinances require a specific number of parking spaces, based on the number of employees/customers, adequate lighting, and screening. In Portland, Oregon, the ordinance provides for landscaping of parking lots in certain zones. Screening is required along the perimeter of the lot and can be done with hedges and trees or fencing.

In Fredericksburg, Texas, extensive landscaping is required of businesses that allow vehicles to “traverse the property as a function of the primary use” (Fredericksburg 2). This would include service stations, grocery stores, banks, restaurants, and other businesses providing drive-through service. The ordinance requires that a five-footwide strip of land separate the parking lot from the street. The strip must have a two-foot-high hedge or wall along the perimeter and a tree planted every fifty feet. Additionally, for every interior parking space, ten square feet of landscaping must be provided.

Design Review: One of the most effective ways to control the impact of fast-food chains on existing buildings is through design review. In San Antonio, the Historic Districts and Landmarks Ordinance requires that any action affecting a historic landmark or property within a historic district must be refereed to the board of review by the historic preservation officer. The permit application must be reviewed and then approved by the board within sixty days. The design guidelines used by the board are adapted from the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. The tastefully restrained designs of the fast- food restaurants in San Antonio are a testimony to the effectiveness of their ordinance. [Refer to Figs. 4-7.]

While design review is a common practice for historic districts, other areas where fast-food development can be equally destructive are often overlooked. The proposed amendment to the Somerville, Massachusetts, zoning ordinance would require that fast-food restaurants applying for special permits in certain districts would be subjected to design review. Two interesting features of the design guidelines sire that “roof types and slopes [must be] similar to those of existing buildings in the area” and parking lots that break the street wall and are situated between buildings along a primary street must “provide a strong design element to continue the street wall definition across the site, such as a low brick wall, ironworks or railing, trees, etc.” (Somerville 5-6).

Moratoria: The most effective and controversial way of curbing fast-food restaurant growth is by prohibiting construction. In July 1985 the San Francisco City Council adopted a moratorium on the construction of new fast-food restaurants in the North Beach neighborhood. At the time, San Francisco had almost 120 fast-food restaurants, most of which were concentrated in a few neighborhoods. The situation had become so critical that the city planning director was attempting to secure a citywide moratorium of up to nine months on construction of new fast-food restaurants (APA “Cities Serve Up” 2).

With cities placing restrictions on their development and the public making their opinions known, the fast- food franchise companies have started to respond by breaking away from their prototypical designs and constructing compatible structures. Across the country numerous examples of architecturally compatible fast-food franchises exist:

Freeport, Maine: In the spring of 1983 Freeport residents formed the Freeport Mac Attack to prevent McDonald’s from razing the 1850 Gore House. Public criticism caused the fast-food giant to alter its original plans and opt instead for rehabilitating the structure. The McDonald’s restaurant now housed in the white clapboard Greek Revival house is far removed from the typical McDonald’s outlet. Steven Lerdy, the manager of media relations at Mc- Donald’s corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, stated that the Freeport store, “indicate[s] that we’re willing to listen, that we have some flexibility, that we are tuning in to the community and its needs . . . . Every community we deal with has its own flavor. We want to be open and willing to learn” (Goodman 46).

Washington, D.C.: A former bank in the Adams Morgan area was converted into a Burger King restaurant. Although there are some problems with signage, the neoclassical structure has remained largely intact (Rosson 46-47).

Taos, New Mexico: The fast-food restaurants in Taos are demonstrative of the franchises’ attempts to design compatible new stores. [Refer to Figs. 8-11.] The McDonald’s is a particularly good example. [Refer to Figs. 8 & 9.] This stores. [Refer to Figs. 8-11.] The McDonald’s is a particularly good example. [Refer to Figs. 8 & 9.] [Sic.] This building successfully incorporates such vernacular features as wood posts, which have now been removed, exposed “adobe” brick, tile roof, and “latia”- inspired spandrels. In comparison, the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) across the street is a halfhearted attempt at compatibility. [Refer to Fig. 11.] The “vigas” poking through the standing seam mansard roof and the “posts” that appear as half-timbering along the side of the building illustrate a poor understanding of the region’s architecture. KFC’s failure becomes even more apparent when looking next at the Baskin-Robbins. [Refer to Fig. 10.] Located on the same road, this store features a simple, straightforward design that recognizes its limits.

Houston, Texas: The Domino’s Pizza located in the old S.H. Kress Building (built 1913) in downtown is another good example. Like the rusticated base that is not original to the building, the store has been well adapted to its space despite the somewhat overpowering neon. [Refer to Figs. 12 & 13.]

Aesthetically, fast-food chains and their precursors have been mired in controversy since their inception. It is ironic that at the same time that they have inadvertently provoked irate public response to their appearance, fast-food franchises have attempted to appeal to the public through their architecture. While the need for high visibility and instant recognition of the name brand have always been important factors, the chains historically have also tried to address contemporary public concerns through their external appearance. For example, in the 1920s Howard Johnson’s employed various design elements to convey an impression of tradition and respectability as well as an easily visible, signature look. The chain wanted to reassure travelers that Howard Johnson’s was a family-oriented, affordable restaurant at a time when families had begun to travel more by car and reputable eating places along highways were still difficult to find. The White Castle chain relied on its memorable castle motif for advertising and chose gleaming white facades suggesting antiseptic cleanliness to combat the popular perception of hamburger stands as unsanitary greasy spoons. Later, drive-in restaurants featured eye-catching architecture and color schemes that suited the ebullient, car-crazy 1950s but were toned down for the more sober, ecologically-conscious 1960s and 1970s.

Today fast-food restaurants generally consist of standardized, nondescript structures; the focus is on large, immediately identifiable signage. The chain’s brightly lit logo is often prominently displayed in several places on the building itself and at the entrance to the parking area as well as perched on a pole high overhead. In addition to their traditional presence along highways and in strip malls, fast-food restaurants are now becoming increasingly prevalent in older, historically significant areas where their architectural incom- patablity with the surrounding buildings is highly apparent. Once again public discontent is beginning to exert an impact, encouraging fast-food chains to make their dining areas more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing for customers who eat out more often and tend to linger longer than in the past. In some cases, pressure by community groups has led restaurants to better adapt their exterior appearance to the architectural style of a particular area.

From the golden arches, red handlebars, and orange-striped A-frames to the subdued styling of the Environmental Look, fast-food franchises have always been concerned with the architectural image that they project to the public. Preservationists can capitalize on this aesthetic concern (which is motivated by the chains’ desire to attract and please the customer) to effect change within their communities. By collecting and disof [sic] these businesses, we can assist communities in limiting the adverse effects that these widespread chains have on our historic and cultural resources.


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Publication Date: January/February 1991


Author(s):R. Kent Millard