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Taking a Closer Look

Have It Your Way: Fast-Food Restaurant Design

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McDonald’s! Burger King! Taco Bell! Wendy’s! Hardee’s! Pizza Hut! Subway! Kentucky Fried Chicken! Today there are more than 150,000 fast-food franchises in the United States, generating sales in excess of $80 billion a year. Ever since Ray Kroc franchised the first McDonald’s in 1954, fast-food restaurants have succeeded in deploying their standardized images from coast to coast.

Many people obviously like fast food, if they didn’t, fast-food restaurants wouldn’t be such an enormous economic success. But many people also question the loss of community character and cultural distinctiveness that accompanies the cookie cutter architecture that seems to follow us everywhere. In a country of highly varied history, climate, culture, and terrain, thousands of cities and towns now look like they were put together with interchangeable parts.

Do fast-food restaurants all have to look exactly alike? Does a McDonald’s in New Mexico have to be in the same style building as one in New York or New Hampshire? Does a franchise on Main Street have to took like the same business outside of town on the strip? The answer to all of these questions is no, of course not. Franchises can be encouraged, and if necessary required, to make their buildings “fit” with the natural and historic character of each local community.

Today, most fast-food chains are willing –sometimes even eager — to give their restaurants more individual style. For the most part, however, citizens, elected officials, developers, planners, and the public-at-large have no idea that new franchises can be an attractive community asset rather than a homogenizing eyesore.

This article will discuss tools and techniques that cities and towns can use to get franchise development to respect community character. It will provide examples of some of the numerous communities that have worked with national restaurant chains to reuse historic buildings or to construct new buildings that respect local identity. And it will hopefully empower local citizens, and planning boards, to refuse to accept standardized franchise design when it is inappropriate to their community. …

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photo of Ed McMahonEd McMahon is one of the country’s most incisive analysts of planning and land use issues and trends. He holds the Charles Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development and is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC. McMahon is a frequent speaker at conferences on planning and land development.

Over the past 21 years, we’ve been pleased to have published more than two dozen articles by McMahon in the Planning Commissioners Journal, and now on

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