Faced with fresh assaults on fast food from politicians and anti- obesity activists, the restaurant industry is gearing up to fight back, emphasizing the role fast-food businesses have played in providing jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities.
Starting next year, major chain restaurants in California will have to include calorie counts of items on menus. Last week, San Francisco officials passed the so-called Happy Meal ban, which forbids toys to be included with meals that don't meet nutritional standards. Santa Clara County had earlier approved such a ban.
Now the battle switches to Southern California, where the city of Los Angeles wants to bring back — and tighten — restrictions on establishing new fast-food restaurants in some minority neighborhoods where obesity is a significant health problem.
The measure unanimously passed the Los Angeles Planning Commission last month and is expected to be taken up by a City Council committee later this month. Behind the scenes, lobbyists have been working City Hall, pointing out that McDonald's, Burger King and other franchises have brought jobs, management training and entrepreneurial opportunities to many disadvantaged people in those very same communities.
"These fast-food franchises are often a ladder if not an elevator up the socioeconomic ladder for folks," said Daniel Conway, spokesman and lobbyist for the California Restaurant Assn. "These companies are trying to bring jobs and tax revenue to this area."
The topic was a hot one this week at a retreat for officials of the trade group.
"We were sitting here at a board meeting trying to figure out how we wound up on the front lines of the culture wars," Conway said. "We're trying to feed people, and here we are in the cross hairs every single day."
But supporters of the L.A. proposal to restrict the new restaurants say the area it would affect — about 40 square miles of South and southeast Los Angeles, including the communities of West Adams, Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills — are drowning in fast food to the detriment of a population that is overburdened with obesity, diabetes and other nutrition-related conditions.
The Times reported in 2008 that fast-food restaurants, which often offer less-expensive fare than sit-down establishments, represented 45% of the eating establishments in South Los Angeles — far more than in other parts of town.
"The community over the last 20 years has asked for more grocery stores and more food choices," said City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents the areas that would be affected by the measure. "This is a way to achieve that through land use and planning."
It would not be an absolute ban. Although it would forbid the opening of free-standing fast-food emporiums without a lengthy process culminating in approval by the mayor, it would allow new outlets to open in indoor malls, shopping centers and strip malls.
The measure defines a fast-food business as any that doesn't have table service and that offers a limited menu of food prepared in advance, heated quickly and served in disposable wrapping or containers.
A similar though temporary and somewhat weaker measure was in place for about two years before expiring in September. During that period, the city got inquiries about putting in 12 new fast-food restaurants in those areas, but all dropped out before trying to get exemptions from the restrictions, said city planner Faisal Roble. Partly, he said, this could have been because of the weak economy.
Historically, fast food provided business opportunities to African American entrepreneurs at a time when few were available with national companies. Roland Jones, one of the first African American McDonald's executives, got into the business in the mid-1960s, when it was rare for fast-food franchises to be established in minority neighborhoods.
But as whites began moving out of many urban areas, leaving McDonald's and other restaurants with black clientele and white managers who were afraid to stay, Jones said, McDonald's started training black managers and eventually became a leading conduit for African Americans who wanted to start businesses or get into management.
"McDonald's has made more African American millionaires than everyone else," said Jones, who lives in Nashville and help found the Black McDonald's Operators Assn. trade group. "We are into the second and third generation now of owners."
The popular fast-food franchises have been particularly helpful to people from disadvantaged backgrounds, because they offer a built-in structure for learning basic business skills, said Sergio Gascon, director of the Los Angeles Minority Business Enterprise Center. The L.A. proposal, he said, is well intentioned, but it might hurt some would-be entrepreneurs.
"It's trying to raise awareness of obesity issues, but at the same time it could be closing the door for a potential opportunity for entrepreneurship," Gascon said. "It's a tough one."
Ronald Smothers, who owns four Burger King franchises and a Denny's restaurant in South L.A., said he understood the frustration of community members and others who say there are too many fast-food places.
"I understand how the community has gotten kind of fed up with fast food," he said, "and I think it's primarily because they're frustrated at not having more choices when it comes to dining out."
Smothers said he hoped to open another Denny's, a restaurant that wouldn't be covered by the proposed restrictions.
"I believe in giving sit-down restaurants a chance to come in and test themselves," he said.