For the past year, I've been following from an unusually objective distance the brouhaha over In-N-Out's proposal to open one of its drive-through burger restaurants at the far north end of North Main Street. As Walnut Creek Patch , residents who live in neighborhoods just west of the site are not happy.
These northwest neighborhoods of homes and tree-lined streets happen to lie within Walnut Creek's city limits. Meanwhile, the proposed In-N-Out property sits literally just over the border in Pleasant Hill. That city, therefore, has jurisdiction over any planning decisions regarding the property, now a field of weeds and an oak tree. It also stands to enjoy the tax benefits.
Walnut Creek neighbors say they will have to deal with the fall-out. They have aired their concerns at both Pleasant Hill and Walnut Creek city meetings, saying the property, between the Oak Park Hill mortuary and the big parking lot for Black Angus Steakhouse, is too small to accommodate a nearly 4,000-square-foot drive-through restaurant and the high volume of customers and motorists it is likely to attract.
Laura Milstead and other residents cited numbers from the city of Pleasant Hill that the restaurant could bring an additional 1,200 to 1,500 cars a day into their neighborhood.
They also said the drive-through will open 30 feet from the home of a resident who has lived in the neighborhood for 60 years, near a family with small children and next door to the Oak Park Hills Chapel mortuary. The restaurant would bring unwelcome noise, odor, crime and late-night crowds who have been drinking and partying into the area.
As the Planning Commission prepares to release an environmental impact report, dueling Facebook pages and petitions have been posted this week to gather signatures for and against the project. As the blog Claycord has reported, "just a few days after Pleasant Hill Chamber of Commerce supporters created a Facebook page & petition in favor of In-N-Out Burger, a citizen stepped up and created a petition and Facebook page against the proposed restaurant.
The Limit In-N-Out Burger in Pleasant Hill Petition says that the location next door to homes is simply inappropriate for this kind of business and that the fast-food burger chain already has the greenlight to open a location three miles up the road at Contra Costa Boulevard and Concord Avenue.
Meanwhile, the petition created by chamber supporters says the North Main Street location is appropriate because the area is zoned commercial The restaurant will "bring in much needed tax revenue for Pleasant Hill and good paying jobs to area residents."
OK, let me say first that I like In-N-Out burgers--though, .for the sake of my waistline, they should remain rare indulgences. A lot of the residents who live near the proposed North Main Street location have admitted that they, too, like In-N-Out.
Even die-hard foodies have to give In-N-Out its due ever since top American chef Thomas Keller, of French Laundry fame, said the following in 2007 to Via Magazine; "I really respect a company that holds its ground when there is so much pressure to follow the 'what’s next, what’s new' trend. In-N-Out’s quality lies in the simplicity of what it promises and delivers. To be able to do something over and over with integrity and excellence, even if it is fast food, is something to be truly admired."
So, there you go. Thomas Keller says In-N-Out models integrity and excellence in the way it prepares its fast food.
I have long been in favor of the chain opening a location in Walnut Creek, as I wrote in September 2009 on my CrazyinSuburbia blog. Indeed, when the controversy over the North Main Street location first boiled up, I talked to a top representative at In-N-Out and asked if the company--please, please, please--would consider moving its sights south to my hometown. He assured me that the company was considering Walnut Creek in its future plans.
But for now we in Walnut Creek would have to settle for this North Main Street location.
I'm sorry but this location makes absolutely no sense to me. It makes no sense to the neighbor who made the YouTube video I posted.
For one thing, there is what I believe to be a guiding ethos of the In-and-Out model. The company locates restaurants close to freeway entrances and exits so that its car-bound customers can enjoy easy access--they can literally drive in, get their burgers, fries and shakes, and drive out.
Yes, this proposed location sits right across North Main Street from Interstate 680. But getting there from the freeway is not as easy as it looks. To get there from either north or southbound 680 involves exiting a mile or so south or north of the location, traveling through several intersections, a U-turn on Contra Costa Boulevard, crossing the freeway or a confusing turn off Oak Park Boulevard. Residents in the neighborhood say people often miss the Oak Park turnoff to North Main Street and wind up wandering through their streets to find the thoroughfare.
I'm also going to say something that some will no doubt find objectionable about that particular stretch of North Main Street, between the mortuary and the Oak Park Boulevard overpass. But here goes: The first word that comes to mind is "armpit." It's just a remote, unappetizing, almost pointless location. And I am just talking about North Main Street, not the pleasant residential neighborhoods to the west.
Yeah, Black Angus Steakhouse is there-. The longstanding steakhouse looks like it recently received a new paint job and landscaping. Black Angus used to be a central Contra Costa hotspot before downtown Walnut Creek's nightlife took off.
I'm sure in the years since, the durable Black Angus has evolved and maintained a legion of loyal fans.
But again, that North Main Street stretch makes me think "armpit." There is no nice way to put it.
As for the mortuary, I wonder: A happy-skippy food preparation joint next to a mortuary?
There's a disconnect here. I'm mystified that the company's corporate leaders signed off on this location. In-N-Out usually seems so spot-on in choosing desirable sites that will accomplish its goals of serving as many double-doubles to as many customers and as quickly as possible.
As a Walnut Creek resident, who is sitting here craving some In-N-Out fries as I write this, I don't see myself frequenting this North Main Street location. Despite it's apparent proximity to the freeway, the 680 entrance and exit configurations make the location not that convenient. Also, I avoid that part of North Main whenever possible. I just find driving through it a bit depressing and annoying. As you travel south, approaching Treat Boulevard, it gets clogged with cars. But that's the route I'd have to take when returning home from a North Main Street In-N-Out burger run--which I wouldn't do very often, if at all.
I still have high hopes for In-N-Out someday coming to Walnut Creek. In the meantime, I'll stick to The Habit, The Counter and even Burger King closer to downtown if I have a burger and fries craving.
Martha Ross is the editor of Walnut Creek Patch and the publisher of the Walnut Creek-based blog, Crazyinsuburbia.blogspot.com.