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Escondido yearns for an In-N-Out

The hamburger chain scrapped plans for a restaurant in 1991 over a signage dispute. Sad residents keep trying to bring it back -- the issue has even changed political careers -- to no avail.

February 09, 2009|Tony Perry

ESCONDIDO, CALIF. — San Marcos has one. Vista does too. San Diego has several.

Even Folsom in Northern California, a city best known for its state prison, just got one.

But Escondido, which fancies itself the capital of affluent Northern San Diego County, has no In-N-Out restaurant.

The city came close two decades ago, and therein lies a tale of lasting civic pain and unrequited love for the purveyor of hamburgers and fries.

Escondido residents still fume over In-N-Out's decision in 1991 to drop its plans for a burger stand in their city amid a dispute with the City Council over the company's bid for a sign big enough to be seen from the freeway.

"I was elected in 1992 because the council before me refused to allow a sign waiver for In-N-Out," Mayor Lori Holt Pfeiler said. "People are still angry about that."

Jo Ann Case, the city's economic development director, said the stores that Escondido residents would most like to see in town are a Wal-Mart, a Costco and an In-N-Out.

"It's one of those places that has a cult following," Case said. "If you have one, people will seek it out."

But repeated entreaties from Escondido have failed to attract In-N-Out back to this suburb 40 miles north of San Diego. That failure has given rise to a widespread belief that In-N-Out put the city on a "do not build" list.

The North County Times newspaper, in a recent front-page story that mixed memory and desire, tried to dispel the notion of Escondido being blacklisted: "Officials say In-N-Out has no 'grudge' against Escondido."

Carl Van Fleet, In-N-Out executive vice president for planning and development, said the company would love to be in Escondido but has not been able to find a site as good as the one proposed in 1991 (which, once In-N-Out bailed out, became home to a church).

"That's ancient history," Van Fleet said of the dispute. "Our entire real estate team has no recollection of that."

The privately held In-N-Out grows slowly compared to its much larger competitors in the hamburger-and-fries industry. In 2005, the Irvine-based company had 200 sites in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Now it has 229.

By comparison, McDonald's reportedly plans to open 175 sites this year in China, adding to 31,000 worldwide.

Pfeiler said she stops at the In-N-Out in San Diego's Mira Mesa neighborhood when she goes to the big city. City Manager Clay Phillips said he sneaks to San Marcos for In-N-Out fare.

It hurts, he said, to see In-N-Out in neighboring cities but not in his. "Vista and San Marcos are fine communities, but we are too," Phillips said.

Escondido (population 135,000) does not lack for restaurants, fast-food and otherwise. Carl's Jr., Jack in the Box, Dairy Queen, Arby's and, of course, McDonald's are all within a few blocks of where In-N-Out wanted to build next to Interstate 15.

Still, an In-N-Out, Case said, would signal that Escondido has arrived, like when a city finally gets a Trader Joe's grocery store or, years ago, its first Starbucks.

"We have more arts and culture infrastructure than any city other than San Diego," Case said. "But we still don't have In-N-Out."

The city's pitch through the years has been that its attitude toward new business has changed substantially since the 1990s, helped in part by a political upheaval wrought by the In-N-Out controversy.

"We're a different city now," said Mayor Pro Tem Dick Daniels.

Like other officeholders, Daniels said the lack of an In-N-Out is a major complaint whenever he meets with constituents, particularly teenagers. If he could deliver, he's convinced, his political fortunes would zoom.

"I could be in office for life," he said.

--

tony.perry@latimes.com

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