Back in the day, if you told your Uncle Charlie that folks wanted to operate a hamburger restaurant in a nearby commercial area, he would have replied, “Well, that’s a nice thing. I like hamburgers.”
And if you told him that he could buy a burger, fries and a coke without leaving his car, he would have said, “You know, that could be a great convenience because sometimes I’m in a hurry.”
Poor Uncle Charlie. He just didn’t know any better.
Today there’s a long list of reasons to fret about the specter of a drive-through hamburger place in your hometown.
For environmentalists, neighborhood activists, vegetarians, public health officials, nutritionists and people who dislike fast-food chains, hamburger restaurants are repositories of air pollution, traffic congestion, greenhouse gases, childhood obesity, cardio-vascular disease and rank commercialism.
Would you like fries with that?
About the only people wiling to stand up for the lowly hamburger are the people who like eating them – and the occasional curmudgeon who thinks do-gooders shouldn’t rule the world. (You know who you are.)
On Thursday night, the two sides came before the Santa Rosa Planning Commission to argue the merits of a proposed hamburger restaurant on County Center Drive.
It was a lively debate, and if you listened carefully, you could hear echoes of the cultural wars – the place where people choose between hamburgers and tofu, between lettuce and radicchio, between a $5 lunch and a $20 lunch.
It should be mentioned that we’re not talking about any old hamburger stand here. By reputation, In-N-Out Burger serves up the king of meat patties in a bun. Even some of its local critics conceded it’s an exemplary company.
During his first week on the Tonight Show in Los Angeles, Conan O’Brien asked the movie star Tom Hanks what was the best thing about living in California.
And Hanks replied, “In-N-Out Burger.”
For environmental critics, taking on In-N-Out Burger and Tom Hanks – the guy who saved Europe from the Nazis – is not as easy as attacking, say, a chemical company or some garden-variety developer.
Jenny Bard, regional air quality director for the American Lung Association, seemed to acknowledge the problem when she praised the product even as she opposed the Santa Rosa location.
“They do produce really good burgers. That’s why people like it,” she told Staff Writer Derek Moore. “But are we going to put eating hamburgers while sitting in our cars over public health and global warming? That’s the decision that needs to be made.”
Hamburgers or global warming?
Can I have some time to think about it?
Here’s where our politics turns silly. If we want to outlaw drive-through businesses, or limit people to driving their cars on alternate days, we can begin to make a difference in affecting climate change.
But when we imagine that the choice is between a single restaurant and an environmental catastrophe, we are only pretending to do something about global warming.
When we blame a single restaurant for teenage obesity, we’re hiding from an examination of the roles played by families, schools, public health agencies and personal responsibility.
“I can’t believe we are blaming In-N-Out with making kids fat,” said Brian Vogel, a supporter of the project. “You may as well blame spoons.”
When we blame a single restaurant for traffic congestion, we’re hiding from a discussion about our own lifestyle choices. We drive our cars and wonder where all the traffic came from.
“I heard the term, hypocrisy come up several times,” said Commissioner Scott Bartley. “I think it’s just human nature.”
The debate continued. Some said cars lined up at the new restaurant would cause air pollution. Others said it would prevent air pollution because fewer Santa Rosans would be driving to Rohnert Park and Petaluma for their In-N-Out burger fix.
Some said it would cause more traffic. Others said it would mean less traffic because people could walk from nearby offices and homes instead of driving their cars at lunchtime.
At the end, the commission voted 7-0 to support the project.
The vote was a surprise since the three commissioners most closely aligned with environmental groups weren’t shy about listing their objections to the project.
It turns out that no one wanted to be remembered as the person who voted against Santa Rosa’s very own In-N-Out Burger.
On Thursday, out of a sense of civic responsibility, I drove my car to Rohnert Park to test whether this burger joint deserves its reputation. It isn’t easy being a columnist, but sometimes you just have to suck it up and do your job.
The place was jammed. People looked happy. I had a burger (with onions, please), fries and a coke. It was great.
I’m hoping to get over the guilt in a week or two.