Proposed Fine Dining Ordinance “Dangerous & Hypocritical”? Ordinance Tabled (Again)
|5/19/13 Story Update: Last Monday’s Commission discussion of fast food and fine dining standards generated plenty of dire predictions and hypotheticals, but no ultimate resolution.
In an effort to keep fast food restaurants from overrunning Park Avenue, the Commission ran over the City’s proposed ordinance time and again trying to make sense of it. After a long, exhaustive discussion, the ordinance was tabled – on life support once again – awaiting an infusion of new ideas from city staff, attorneys, concerned citizens and merchants.
P&Z Director Jeff Briggs opened the hearing on the proposed Fine Dining ordinance with a brave gesture – a summary of the Firehouse Subs “Fine Dining” policy created just for Park Avenue: “There is a Firehouse Subs business that’s going in next to BurgerFi and they are going to be – have committed to be – the only Firehouse Subs franchise in America that is going to offer table service . . .” Then, Briggs got to the point of the new ordinance language, admitting that “we never thought that any of the fast food franchises such as McDonalds, Burger King, etc. would ever try to fit under the definition of fine dining.”
Mr. Briggs indicated that fast food/fast casual restaurants are treated differently because the city believes that they are not significant contributors to the Avenue’s economic development and cautioned that “just . . . having a waiter or waitress or two working [at these fast casual restaurants] doesn’t change that.” He explained that the city encourages fining dining restaurants because the city and Park Avenue merchants believe that these upscale restaurants are “key to the continued economic development of Park Avenue.”
Bradley & Commission Wrestle With How to Include High-End Franchises While Excluding Others.
Time and again, Mayor Bradley noted that franchise restaurants like Ruth’s Chris and Olive Garden would face barriers to entry to Park Avenue if the new regulations were passed as proposed. Mr. Briggs conceded that – under the proposed rules – an upscale restaurant like Ruth’s Chris, which is franchised nationwide, would not be permitted to locate on Park Avenue unless they were granted a Conditional Approval by the City Commission. Mayor Bradley wondered aloud whether it was the Commission’s role to pass judgment on which restaurants should be on the Avenue. He expressed his concern that favoring one restaurant brand over another is “a very dangerous place to be.”
Both Commissioner Leary and Commissioner McMacken were less reluctant than Mayor Bradley in their willingness to rule on Conditional Use applications by restaurants. Commissioner Cooper argued for banning all non-fine dining restaurants from Park Avenue.
Even though there were points of agreement among the Commissioners, patience in the chamber wore thin at times. Shortly before the Fine Dining ordinance discussion began, Mayor Bradley and Commissioner Cooper had a brief dust-up in a prior discussion concerning Ravaudage that triggered a momentary walkout by Ms. Cooper. Both Cooper and Bradley recovered quickly, however.
Leary: “Quality Establishment Like a BurgerFi” Needs Opportunity to Request Entry to Park Avenue.
Monday’s Fine Dining discussion remained civil, but spirited. Mayor Bradley continued to characterize parts of the new ordinance as “dangerous.” Sarah Sprinkel was exasperated by mistakes and ambiguities in the ordinance language. Tom McMacken recalled his displeasure when he first learned that BurgerFi was flouting its table service pledge and Commissioner Cooper lobbied hard for banning fast food from Park Avenue altogether. In response to Cooper’s advocacy of a complete ban on fast food, Commissioner Leary commented that “the problem with that is that a quality establishment like a BurgerFi does not even have the opportunity to come forward through a Conditional Use process . . .You need to have the opportunity to allow these things . . .”
City Policies Designed to Discourage the “Food Courting” of Park Avenue.
Jeff Briggs recalled that, in the past, there have been concerns about non-food retail franchises on the Avenue – concerns about the “Malling” of Park Avenue. Briggs noted that, despite these misgivings, some merchants believe that franchise retailers like the Gap increase shopping on the Avenue overall. However, Briggs noted that too much fast casual dining could lead to the “Food Courting” of Park Avenue which is “not our character.”
By the end of the discussion, the Commission had not moved significantly closer to consensus. Any sense that they were edging in that direction was strongly challenged by Frank Hamner, attorney for the Holler family, whose retail tenants include both BurgerFi and Firehouse Subs.
Holler Attorney: You Can Take This “Hypocritical” Ordinance and . . . Re-do It.
Hamner spared no feelings and few words in his characterization of the city’s new ordinance as poorly written, confused and “hypocritical.” He criticized city staff for “rushing” the rewriting of the ordinance and urged the city to “start over.”
After Hamner’s passionate critique of the city’s proposal, Mayor Bradley interrupted the Public Comment period and asked City Attorney Brown whether there were problems with the ordinance as written. Brown confirmed that there were errors and began to describe how the errors could be rectified. At that point, City Manager Knight interrupted and suggested to Mayor Bradley that the ordinance be tabled in order for staff “to get it right before it comes back to you.”
Mayor Bradley immediately moved to table the ordinance; Commissioner Leary seconded the motion and the Commission voted unanimously in favor of the motion.
Chapin: “Heartburn Happens” When Fine Dining Rules Not Enforced at Restaurants Like BurgerFi.
After the vote, Mayor Bradley allowed other citizens to continue the Public Comment portion of the hearing. Patrick Chapin from the Chamber of Commerce and Lambrine Macejewski, President of the Park Avenue Merchants Association were among the commenters. Neither supported the proposed ordinance as written.
Once the meeting adjourned, a small group gathered in the back of the chamber to discuss the ordinance. Included in the group were Frank Hamner, Patrick Chapin, Lambrine Macejewski, Jeff Briggs and Commissioner Leary. After a short discussion, the group left the public area and walked together back toward Jeff Briggs’ office in the Planning and Zoning Dept.
Cooper: Let’s Stop All Restaurant Approvals Until We Vote on New Restaurant Rules.
In the days following the hearing, Commission Carolyn Cooper asked City Manager Knight to convene a meeting of Commissioners to discuss enacting a moratorium on issuing permits for future restaurants on the Avenue. The point of the moratorium would be to give the city time to work out its new policy without risking another application by a fast food restaurant attempting to come onto the Avenue by promising Firehouse Subs-style “Fine Dining” table service.
Documents obtained by the Voice lead to the conclusion that no one other than Commissioner McMacken was willing to meet with Commission Cooper to discuss the issue. Cooper and McMacken will meet in the Chapman Room (Room 200) next to the Commission chambers this Wednesday, May 22, immediately following the Commission’s 3:00pm Ravaudage work session. Click the button below to view documents pertaining to Commissioner Cooper’s meeting request.
Last July, City Hall was abuzz with concern about the half-empty block on Park Avenue between Comstock and Fairbanks. The Holler family owned most, if not all, of the vacant space on that block. That same month, the Holler’s attorney, Frank Hamner, testified in support of an effort by city staff to provide relief in the form of special zoning concessions for these properties. The concessions would have enabled a broader range of businesses to occupy first floor retail space.
BurgerFi & City Face Off Over Table Service Agreement.
Within days of last year’s Commission hearings on Park Avenue zoning changes, BurgerFi opened on the Avenue just north of Fairbanks. Earlier that year, BurgerFi persuaded the city to approve its building application by promising to provide table service as required by the city’s “Fine Dining” ordinance language. However, less than one year later, relations between the restaurant and the city have soured. City’s staffers confirm that the city believes that BurgerFi is not keeping its “Fine Dining” promise. More about that later.
During last summer’s Commission hearings, some Commissioners worried that long-vacant store fronts on the block spelled danger for the Avenue. There appeared to be support on the Commission for zoning modifications and creative interpretations of existing regulations. However, many Park Avenue merchants were skeptical, suggesting that property owners on the block could revitalize the area without special concessions and fast food restaurants. Ultimately, community and merchant opposition forced the tabling of the special concessions.
Today, the block is flush with new businesses bracketed by a new Viking appliances showroom on one end and by BurgerFi on the other.
Firehouse Subs Gains Foothold on Avenue with Promise of Full “Fine Dining” Table Service.
Despite the block’s newfound prosperity, new zoning language has once again come before the Commission – at the same time that a new fast food restaurant, Firehouse Subs, is making plans to occupy another Holler-owned store front. And, once again, the Park Avenue Merchants Association appears to be highly antagonistic to any move that will encourage franchise-style, fast food eateries on Park Avenue.
The city’s acceptance of Firehouse Subs’ February 26 building permit application seems to validate merchant concerns that allowing BurgerFi to gain a foothold on the Avenue would open the door to more fast food in downtown Winter Park. However, new “Fine Dining” language being proposed by the city actually appears to be an attempt to discourage future applications from these restaurants.
City Ordinance Changes Make Future Fast Food Openings More Difficult, but Gives Commission Right to Override New Standards for Benefit of City “Economy.”In an interview with the Voice last week, Planning and Zoning Director, Jeff Briggs revealed that the city looked to an historic shopping district in south Florida as inspiration for the city’s new “Fine Dining” guidelines: “The new ordinance language being proposed for the city’s definition of permitted fine dining and fast casual restaurants is modeled on the standards established for the historic Worth Avenue district in Palm Beach, Florida.
The new language, if approved, includes a clause that prohibits future fast food, fast casual formula, franchise-style restaurants from opening on Park Avenue, unless a restaurant of that type applies for and is approved on a Conditional Use basis by the City Commission.”
This is the staff summary of the city’s rationale for making the change:
Proposed ordinance language includes this clause:
Coffee shops and other non-destination establishments that do not generate high parking demand are exempted from the proposed restrictions. For more details on the proposed modifications, click the button below to see the Commission Agenda document that lays out the changes.
Will the Proposed Changes Calm Merchant Fears that a New Fast Food Era is Beginning on the Avenue?
The Merchants Association won’t officially speak on the matter until their meeting this Monday, the day of the Commission meeting. However, last week the Voice interviewed Merchants Association President Lambrine Macejewski and VP Steven McElveen. Ms. Macejewski and Mr. McElveen, speaking for themselves, expressed opposition to fast food franchises on the Avenue – whether or not these businesses conform to the “Fine Dining” model that includes servers taking orders at tables and delivering food and drink as traditional restaurants do.
Ms. Macejewski, who owns a Tex-Mex restaurant on East Welbourne Avenue, commented that the city’s approval of Firehouse Subs to open on the Avenue “has upset a lot of merchants . . . they’re concerned about the integrity of the Avenue.” Ms. Macejewski promised that merchants will attend the Commission meeting to learn more about – and possibly comment on – the city’s intentions.
Mr. McElveen, whose business is directly across from City Hall, told the Voice that merchants are worried about “the gates opening” for more fast food businesses on the Avenue – and are hoping that the Commission “will write the code in such a way that that doesn’t happen.”
Whether or not the city Commission approves the new regulations, the city must depend on BurgerFi and Firehouse Subs (who are governed by the current ordinance) to keep their promises to provide fine dining-style table service. Firehouse Subs has submitted a letter to the city pledging to “Provide full table service to everyone who wishes to be seated . . . A dedicated and sufficient wait staff will be hired to greet and serve guests in the dining room.” Firehouse will also post prominent signage that will “. . . invite the restaurant guest to be seated for table service.”
Click the Button below to read the Firehouse Subs letter.
The language in the Firehouse letter appears to satisfy city staff that Firehouse will provide fine dining table service as currently defined in the city ordinance. However, because the letter specifies that customers may order at the counter if they wish, Firehouse’s promise does not conform to the new fine dining standards being proposed by Planning and Zoning.
The new city rules would prohibit restaurants from offering counter service to customers who choose to dine on the premises. Nevertheless, it appears that Firehouse has been approved to open on the Avenue. City staff tells the Voice that the Firehouse table service agreement passes muster because they applied for their building permit under current rules several months ago.
If Current Zoning Rules Prohibit “Sub Shops” from Opening on the Avenue, How Did Firehouse Subs Get Approved?
In his response to the Voice, Mr. Briggs explained that “That sentence in the fine dining definition uses ‘sandwich shops’, ‘sub shops’ and ‘fast food business’ as illustrative examples of ‘restaurants where ordering and payment is done at a counter/cashier’. Every fine dining restaurant on Park Avenue serves sandwiches but they are not a sandwich shop because the ordering and payment is not done at the counter/cashier.“
Briggs was less charitable toward BurgerFi, which appears to be ignoring assurances they gave the city. According to Briggs, BurgerFi has responded to city concerns about their table service policy by offering to submit a written guarantee to the city that full table service is available to customers who request it – and to prominently post signage informing customers of the policy. Mr. Briggs sees that offer as an attempt to get the city to bless BurgerFi’s current policy, which, so far, has resulted in very few diners taking advantage of full table service.
BurgerFi May Face Code Enforcement Crackdown if Table Service is Not Upgraded.
Briggs is clearly unhappy with BurgerFi’s response, and the long lines of customers waiting to place orders at the counter day-after-day: “That was their offer to get us to deem them in compliance. To me that is insufficient.” It appears that nothing less than a dedicated wait staff and a stronger commitment to making table service a reality will satisfy the city. Barring that, city staffers in Code Enforcement may soon be visiting the restaurant to issue citations that could result in daily fines.
The Voice asked Code Enforcement officials how this process would play out if fines are assessed and are not paid by the restaurant. We were told that standard procedure at the city is to ultimately foreclose on property where fines have remained unpaid.
How Fine is BurgerFi’s “Fine Dining” Table Service? Here’s What We Found:
This past week, the Voice dined at BurgerFi during lunch hour. I stood in line like everybody else and, before ordering, asked the cashier whether table service was available. I was informed that table service was available, but “not during BurgerFi’s busy times.” During lunch I did not see any table service other than meals being delivered to tables after diners had ordered at the counter. Also, just like any at fast food franchise, diners were getting themselves soft drinks out of self-serve machines, pumping their own condiments, dumping food wrappers into waste receptacles and depositing dirty trays into a rack. I did not observe any signage that offered a full table service option.
The next morning I visited the restaurant again at 11:00AM and sat down at a table on the patio waiting for a server to take my order. No other customers were in the restaurant, which appeared to be fully staffed in anticipation of the upcoming lunch rush. BurgerFi’s general manager, Don Clemence, kneeled down at a table nearby making some sort of repair. After five minutes I was approached by an employee who offered to take my order. Instead, I asked to interview the manager. Mr. Clemence, who’s been with the franchise for two months, confirmed that BurgerFi does have a policy of offering table service to anyone who asks, but was unaware of any discussion of providing signage to let customers know that a table service policy exists. Mr. Clemence acknowledged that only a small percentage of customers take advantage of BurgerFi’s full table service option.
Winter Park Voice requested comment from all City Commissioners and the Mayor. As of press time, the Voice received no reply except for this statement submitted by Commissioner Carolyn Cooper:
“Thank you for an opportunity to comment on the proposed change to this important ordinance governing what uses are and are not permitted on Park Avenue. I believe we all understand the economic importance of protecting the character of Park Avenue and appreciate the staff’s effort to tighten up the definition of ‘fine dining.’
Unfortunately, while the ordinance requires ‘non-fine dining restaurants’ to obtain conditional use approval, it stops short of restricting ‘non-fine dining restaurants’ from Park Avenue. I believe this ordinance, as proposed, does not provide the Park Avenue brand the protection it deserves.
There are lots of locations in Winter Park where we can grab fast food. The question is, should those locations include Park Avenue? It is time for us to have a conversation regarding this critical topic. Hope you will join the discussion.”