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Restaurant Conversion and the American Landscape (2015)

Restaurant Conversion and the American Landscape (2015)

If the Dunkin’ Donuts slogan could be revised to reflect the true nature of the country with just one word changed, it would not read “America runs on Dunkin.” Rather, “America runs on fast food” would be much more appropriate.

If the Dunkin’ Donuts slogan could be revised to reflect the true nature of the country with just one word changed, it would not read “America runs on Dunkin.” Rather, “America runs on fast food” would be much more appropriate. Our nation is home to vast number of multinational, quick-service restaurant chains: Starbucks, McDonalds, Wendy’s, Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut, etc. Combined, the leading quick-service restaurants hold over 125,000 units, or just about 20% of the total American restaurant market share.1 However, that market share is in constant change. Restaurants often fail, get bought out, or simply move locations. This leaves countless shells of empty chain restaurants left across our landscape.

What happens to these chain restaurants when they are sold, leased, or even simply abandoned by their corporations or franchisees? Some properties may either be left and sit derelict, becoming reclaimed by the nature they had original conquered. In other neighborhoods, perhaps lower income areas that have begun to gentrify, they may be demolished and become the site of a condo or mixed use development, or perhaps simply a new fast food restaurant. However, that still leaves a large number of empty sites that have been vacated by their original operators. Timothy Davis contends that “the tremendous amount of automobile oriented commercial architecture produced during the mid-twentieth century ensures that it will continue to play a significant, if largely overlooked, role in the postmodern urban landscape.”2 Changing landscape and location demographics promote the conversion of quick-service and existing roadside architecture due to high availability, low desirability, and malleable space. Through this lens, it is possible to analyze the historical, cultural, and economic forces behind the conversions of chain restaurants and their impact on the landscape.

A Brief History of Fast Food Landscape

The car frenzy that swept the nation beginning at the start of the 20th century created a huge impact on the American Landscape. Notably, the desire for speediness and efficiency lead to a proliferation of roadside diners and “greasy spoons” beginning in the 1920s. Ultimately, drive-ins with car hops gave way to walk-ups and eventually full on restaurants, influencing and becoming the language of the fast-food restaurant that Americans are familiar with today. While there are many companies and types of fast food restaurants, there are common design elements that unite them in a single language. Today buildings with flat or mansard roofs, distinct colors and themes, and prominent geometries are ubiquitous in our landscape. These restaurants, and the buildings they are housed in, have become easy to identify through their use of distinct and recognizable architecture. They are brand identifiers, and speak to the American comfort of enjoying familiarity and comfort wherever they are across the landscape. Countless decades have been spent transitioning and creating, through design and layout, the language of fast food. Today, American’s can easily spot a fast food restaurant through a recognition of a “nationally standardized building surrounded by the pavement of its own parking lot.”3

The brief but important history of fast food culture represents the transitional and temporary nature of such establishments. The need to quickly establish a common design language among brands that would serve customers most efficiently and effectively left skeletons and shells of former buildings in its wake. Many old-style McDonalds were demolished and replaced at the end of their 20 year leases.4 Americans “were shocked a few years ago to learn that there were only a handful of original McDonalds remaining in existence – a building type that at one time had been the one of the nation’s most numerous.”5 There is an ever-changing desire and need amongst quick-service restaurants to consistently stay modern and up-to-date. While today these changes are often made subtly to maintain consistency between older and newer units, design and operating changes in the past tended to be so drastic as to require whole new spaces and buildings, often leaving old ones behind for demolition or conversion.

Characteristics of Chain Conversions

The ever-changing and evolving nature of restaurant and chain branding leads designers of most features such as décor and interior furniture to create temporary installations, not meant to last more than a few years.6 This attitude towards commercial space reveals why conversions often tend to appear dirty or in a state of disrepair. While the original operators of the space may have intended to replace the interior objects every few years, it is fairly obvious that the new operators of the space do not intend to or are not financially capable of doing so. In addition to not replacing interior treatments, many operators leave most of the space in its previous condition as well.

Many conversions leave architectural and design elements of the original restaurant intact. Often, items left behind identify the brand before and represent the challenges that another operator would have if they were to convert the location to another chain including faded former logos and branding, or identifiable paint schemes.

dairy queen Figure 1 – A former Dairy Queen with the faded shadow of the logo (Not Fooling Anybody, Photo: Nigel Grip)

Additionally, many architectural elements of the original restaurants show up in the conversions. Converted McDonalds have the remains of their golden arches. Wendy’s conversions have their “greenhouse” bubble windows. Former Burger Kings are identifiable through their angular geometry, and KFC conversions are easily identifiable by their roofs and cupolas.7 Many of these restaurants are converted into places that may depart from the original and traditional businesses at these locations. Conversions include ethnic food restaurants, tobacco and liquor stores, various services such as banks and check cashing. Occasionally they will also become home to a new chain, such as Starbucks, that has the money and time to take it over if the cost is deemed appropriate and the location would still turn a profit.

mcd

Figure 2 – A former McDonalds turned donut shop with what remains of the once golden arches (Huffington Post)
Economic and Cultural Factors of Quick-Service Restaurant Conversions

It is necessary to examine the cultural and economic factors (though many often occur together and influence each other) which lead to converted quick-service restaurants as a part of the landscape. In his analysis of the current state of the American commercial strip, Timothy Davis argues that neglected commercial strip architecture is often used by immigrants and low-income entrepreneurs to avoid the high rents of gentrified neighborhoods, revitalized main streets and downtowns.8 “The cheap, ugly, out of fashion buildings found along aging commercial strips provide opportunities for marginal tenants and shoestring entrepreneurs to secure a foothold in the postmodern metropolis.”9 Often times, it makes more cultural sense for local operators to take over shuttered chain properties due to an area’s surroundings and economical sense in terms of return of investment.

Jeffrey Rogers, a member of the NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Development Association, argues that repurposed commercial space must make economic, legal, and physical sense. The four main attributes to consider which would affect the feasibility of a conversion are: location, functionality, cost, and zoning.10 Location has long played an important role in the operation of fast food restaurants. McDonalds has one of the best real estate portfolios of all investors. It is certainly true that many restaurants close for reasons other than poor location,11 yet shifting demographics in areas where many of these restaurants have been built – from middle-class suburbs to less desirable, lower class settlements – have contributed to the decline of traditional businesses (including restaurants) and dissuaded new development. Alternatively, the shifting demographics encourage new businesses to open in the locations which cater to the needs of the evolving community.12

Functionality may provide another explanation to the new uses of quick-service restaurant spaces. Phil Kensinger of Kensinger & Company, a property management firm in Houston Texas states that “improvement in a restaurant built-to-suit often has little or no value to a successor tenant.”13 That is to say that due to their unique layouts and specific branding elements, these spaces serve little function to another operator. However, these buildings function as malleable space for low-income entrepreneurs to build their business in a place that will function to benefit the surrounding community.

Often times, these vacant restaurant sites cost little compared to more generic buildings or to buildings in other locations, yet conversion costs to the landlord can lead to above market rental rates for other multinational operators if they were to take over.14 Tom Finn, vice-president of franchise development for Green Turtle Sports Bar and Grille notes that converting a former restaurant to fit the needs of a new operator can cost the same as building from the ground-up.15 This is due to specific architectural features and distinct layouts of the buildings that make them challenging to convert them to use for another chain. “They are not easily converted for use by another restaurant, perhaps not even with extensive conversion costs. The same is true for changing the elevation, interior layouts and redoing the interior finish.”16 It is therefore much more attractive and economically feasible for local operators to convert a restaurant to their purposes, as they can adapt existing architecture more easily to their uses and don’t have a specific brand image to uphold. Zoning can also provide an economic benefit to local operators and entrepreneurs when converting a quick-service restaurant because they often do not need to invest as much time or as many resources to get the proper permits and permissions to open a food-establishment, allow parking or drive-ins, or get an alcohol license as opening in a new location.

The conversion of chain restaurant spaces into other uses often provides a new source for the local circulation of capital and provides an easy access into the market for investors and entrepreneurs due to lower property values. When viewed through a cultural and economic lens, the conversions represent a change in landscape processes that affect them from a distant circulation of capital to a local circulation of capital. Clearly, a multinational chain such as McDonalds or KFC represents a distant circulation of capital, yet often these businesses are taken over by local entrepreneurs hoping to start their own businesses, and therefore the landscape process becomes local circulation of capital.

Kind for Cures as a Case Study

In the episode of South Park entitled ‘Medicinal Fried Chicken,’ Cartman and friends are surprised to discover that the Kentucky Fried Chicken in their town has been closed and turned into a medical marijuana dispensary.17 Much like other events that occur within the series, the occurrence is based on the real world. In 2009, a dispensary in Los Angeles began operating out of an old KFC, even going so far as to self-parody and title itself the “Kind For Cures” collective, with giant green letters of KFC painted in the windows.18

The dispensary offers a look into the patterns of use of space in converted restaurants. While the name and the episode of South Park may be a laughing matter, ultimately the business is far from funny. Curbed LA calls it “depressing” and somewhat “sinister.”19 The building itself has been left in the original KFC paint scheme, with the exterior architectural elements including most of the sign remaining. Inside, a board of wood blocks off the kitchen from the counter area. The original counter has been left installed, includingkfc

Figure 3 – Kind for Cures Exterior (Curbed LA)

the center cooler which is no longer in use. Both the piece of wood and the front counters have been messily painted with a layer of blue paint and there are several stickers and signs left with KFC logos and branding, and faded spots on the walls where images once hung. The use of the vacant KFC property by a marijuana dispensary shows the non-traditional types of businesses that evolve to serve a population in the place of the original operator. The space is located off the freeway on a former commercial strip that has long been forgotten which makes sense for a local operator to take over due to its cheap cost, changing neighborhood demographics, and low desirability for multinational chains. It’s clear that there has been very little investment on the part of the current owner, yet it has not been necessary for them to have a successful business. Use of space such as this makes sense for marginalized populations or those who cannot secure loans, because of the low cost of property and low need for investment to make the space accommodate the new business’ needs. Through conversion the local operator can serve a new and evolved purpose for the surrounding community.

kfc inside
Figure 4 – Kind for Cures Interior (Curbed LA)

Conclusion

The conversion of quick-service restaurant spaces which take place across the country serve to better provide for their surrounding communities, and give better opportunities to marginalized and low-income entrepreneurs. Changing regional demographics, low desirability and high availability have allowed a new type of vernacular landscape to flourish in the forgotten corners of communities around the country. While some may see neglected commercial strips, others see a place to buy cheap ethnic cuisine, to bank, and buy a pack of cigarettes. Davis states that society should judge its commercial landscapes by the way they function for the people that use
them regularly.20 In this regard, converted spaces serve their function well both for those who use them regularly and those that run them. Converted quick-service restaurants provide another benefit to our fast-paced, “new”-obsessed society. By using the space that is already there, rather than tearing down and building something new, operators of converted chain restaurants allow the few existing examples of mid-century roadside architecture to be preserved and appreciated, whether intentionally or not. While the last 40 years may not seem historical, the remaining examples give us a glimpse into the evolution of our recent culture, and will prove more valuable as time goes on. Converted chain restaurants not only provide an outlet for community needs and motivated entrepreneurs, but serve a greater purpose of preserving the car culture and roadside architecture of a bygone era.

Footnotes

1 “Leading quick service restaurant (QSR) chains in the United States in 2013, by number of units.” QSR Magazine. (2013), accessed November 16, 2014, http://www.statista.com/statistics/242883/quick-service-restaurant-chains-by-number-of-restaurants.

2 Timothy Davis, “The Miracle Mile Revisited: Recycling, Renovation, and Simulation along the Commercial Strip.” In Annmarie Adams and Sally McMurry (Eds.). Exploring Everyday Landscapes: Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, VII (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 93.

3 Philip Langdon, Orange Roofs, Golden Arches: The Architecture of American Chain Restaurants (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986) ix.
4 Langdon, Orange Roofs, Golden Arches,108.

5 W. Ray Luce, “Kent State, White Castles and Subdivisions: Evaluating the Recent Past.” In Deborah

Slaton and Rebecca A. Shiffer (Eds.). Preserving the Recent Past. Historic Preservation Education Foundation, Washington, DC. 1995

6 Langdon, Orange Roofs, Golden Arches, 185.

7 Liz Clayton, “A Field Guide to Common Bad Conversions.” Not Fooling Anybody. Accessed November 6, 2014, http://notfoolinganybody.com/nfa/field-guide/.
8 Timothy Davis, “The Miracle Mile Revisited: Recycling, Renovation, and Simulation along the

Commercial Strip.” In Annmarie Adams and Sally McMurry (Eds.). Exploring Everyday Landscapes: Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, VII (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 97.

9 Davis, “The Miracle Mile Revisited”, 96.

10 Jeffrey S. Rogers, “Vacant to Vibrant: Repurposing Commecial Real Estate” (webinar at NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Development Association, January, 2012). http://www.naiop.org/en/E-Library/Development/Vacant-to-Vibrant.aspx.

11 Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, “Million Dollar Paybacks,” FSR Magazine, January 2014.
http://www.fsrmagazine.com/real-estate/million-dollar-paybacks/.

12 Davis, “The Miracle Mile Revisited”, 98.

13 Patrick Oconnor, “Real Evaluation of Restaurants.” Evan Carmichael. Accessed November 8, 2014.
http://www.evancarmichael.com/Business-Financing/5705/Evaluation-of-Restaurants.html.

14 Oconnor, “Real Evaluation of Restaurants.”

15 Odesser-Torpey, “Million Dollar Paybacks,”

16 Oconnor, “Real Evaluation of Restaurants.”

17 South Park, “Medicinal Fried Chicken” S14E03. Comedy Central, 2010. Television.

18 Adrian Kudler, “Palms KFC Turned Dispensary Shows Up on South Park.” Curbed LA. April 1, 2010.
http://la.curbed.com/archives/2010/04/palms_kfc_turned_dispensary_shows_up_on_south_park.php.

19 Dakota Smith, “Inside the KFC Turned Dispensary (It’s Depressing).” Curbed LA, September 1, 2009.
http://la.curbed.com/archives/2009/09/kfc_turned_diispensary_is_actually_not_very_funny.php#nkfc-2.

20 Davis, “The Miracle Mile Revisited”, 110.

Bibliography

Boboltz, Sara. “These 21 Failed Chain Stores Aren’t Fooling Anyone.” The Huffington Post. March 24, 2014. Accessed November 4, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/24/failed-chain-stores_n_5003225.html.

Clayton, Liz. “A Field Guide to Common Bad Conversions.” Not Fooling Anybody. Accessed November 6, 2014. http://notfoolinganybody.com/nfa/field-guide/

Davis, Timothy. 1997. “The Miracle Mile Revisited: Recycling, Renovation, and Simulation along the Commercial Strip.” In Annmarie Adams and Sally McMurry

(Eds.). Exploring Everyday Landscapes: Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, VII. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Deadlani, Anthony. “McDonalds Is a Real Estate Company.” Seeking Alpha: Read, Decide, Invest. Accessed November 15, 2014. http://seekingalpha.com/article/73533-mcdonalds-is-a-real-estate-company.

Douglas, James. Building Adaptation. 2nd ed. Amsterdam: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2006.

Jakle, John A., and Keith A. Sculle. Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Jones, W. Dwayne “In Search of the Vernacular Twentieth-Century Drive-in Restaurant.”

In Deborah Slaton and Rebecca A. Shiffer (Eds.). Preserving the Recent Past. Historic Preservation Education Foundation, Washington, DC. 1995

Kudler, Adrian. “Palms KFC Turned Dispensary Shows Up on South Park.” Curbed LA. April 1, 2010. Accessed December 4, 2014. http://la.curbed.com/archives/2010/04/palms_kfc_turned_dispensary_shows_up_ on_south_park.php.

Langdon, Philip. Orange Roofs, Golden Arches: The Architecture of American Chain Restaurants. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

“Leading quick service restaurant (QSR) chains in the United States in 2013, by number of units.” QSR Magazine. (2013), accessed November 16, 2014, http://www.statista.com/statistics/242883/quick-service-restaurant-chains-by-number-of-restaurants.

Luce, W. Ray, “White Castles and Subdivisions: Evaluating the Recent Past.” In Deborah

Slaton and Rebecca A. Shiffer (Eds.). Preserving the Recent Past. Historic Preservation Education Foundation, Washington, DC. 1995

Oconnor, Patrick. “Real Evaluation of Restaurants.” Evan Carmichael. Accessed November 8, 2014. http://www.evancarmichael.com/Business-
Financing/5705/Evaluation-of-Restaurants.html.

Odesser-Torpey, Marilyn, “Million Dollar Paybacks,” FSR Magazine, January 2014.
http://www.fsrmagazine.com/real-estate/million-dollar-paybacks/.

Rogers, Jeffrey S. “Vacant to Vibrant: Repurposing Commecial Real Estate” Webinar at

NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Development Association, January, 2012. http://www.naiop.org/en/E-Library/Development/Vacant-to-Vibrant.aspx.

Smith, Dakota. “Inside the KFC Turned Dispensary (It’s Depressing).” Curbed LA. September 1, 2009. Accessed November 10, 2014. http://la.curbed.com/archives/2009/09/kfc_turned_diispensary_is_actually_not_v ery_funny.php#nkfc-2.

South Park, “Medicinal Fried Chicken” S14E03. Comedy Central, 2010. Television.

“Where Bad Conversions Abound • /r/NotFoolingAnybody.” Reddit. Accessed
November 1, 2014. http://www.reddit.com/r/notfoolinganybody.

Images Used

Figure 1 – Taken from www.notfoolinganyone.com. Photo: Nigel Grip

Figure 2 – Taken from huffington post (see bibliography)

Figure 3 & Figure 4 – Taken from LA Curbed Articles (see bibliography)

 

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