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Fast Food Disappearing in DC as Fast Casual Options Take Hold

Accompanying images can be viewed starting on page 1 of the December 2019 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

Leaving a long day at work or maybe it’s 3 a.m. and you have been partying, you have a fast food greasy craving: chicken, fries, burger. You may be at a loss here in the District of Columbia. Where is the nearest Burger King<> chain store? In Northwest, there is a single location on Connecticut Avenue just north of the University of the District of Columbia. Otherwise one must travel five miles or more to Brentwood in Northeast, Adelphi in Maryland, or Arlington in Virginia.

Or where do you go in Northwest to find a Taco Bell? Nowhere in Northwest; the two remaining Taco Bell stores in DC can be found only in Northeast –- on Massachusetts Avenue near Union Station and way out New York Avenue at Bladensburg Road.


Disappearing fast food establishments is a national phenomenon, but it has accelerated here in DC. Where is the nearest Roy Rogers? It is miles away in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs — Rockville, Alexandria. A single Wendy’s is still open in Northwest –- in Petworth, on Georgia Avenue near Quincy Street.

Remember in the heyday of fast food — the 1980s — when there seemed to be fast food outlets everywhere. In Dupont Circle, for example, there was a Burger King in the 2000 block of P Street and a Wendy’s on Connecticut Avenue at 18th –- both now long gone.

Why? There are several factors

Development. The so-called “progress” which substantial numbers of neighborhood residents view not as progress but as developers barging in as they buy up small buildings in which these fast food outlets were tenants and replace those with up-scale, multi-use high-rises for which their “luxury condos” are aggressively promoted for sale at upwards of $500,000. Their marketing plans do not include fast food on the first floor –- though there are a few a notable exceptions in Northwest, such as the Popeyes on Columbia Road in Adams Morgan and another on 14th Street.

Concomitant with the development issue, is that of rising commercial rent charges which are especially hard for low-end retail establishments to bear.

Gentrification. DC’s population has exploded to 702,000. The increase is primarily young, educated professionals moving in, many of whom have had no exposure to traditional fast food outlets given their upbringing by health-conscious parents and the many new kinds of food and dining options that dotted their home neighborhoods.

Columbia Heights resident Richard thinks that farmers markets and food trucks also need to be taken into account. Capitol Hill resident Joseph emailed emailed me to say,  “I think fast food joints are disappearing due to the advertising machine of higher end mega-restaurant chains such as Match Box and CAVA.”

Economic Upturns. DC is surely going through an economic upturn with income inequality becoming more pronounced. Well-to-do city dwellers attract more restaurants, more dining out, and more spending on food –- and thereby ruling out fast food.

Some fast food chains make adjustments to keep up. The 47-year-old Popeyes, owned by Restaurant Brands International, Inc., rolled out their crispy chicken sandwich last year. According to a Wall Street Journal report last month, that translated into a 4% increase for that one item.

Nutrition Education. Surely no one — even during the fast food heyday – truly believed that fast food was nutritious. People did know it was fast and generally cheap. (Back in the 1960s five dollars at a Burger King could feed a family of six!) Today, with the prevalence of nutrition education and health consciousness generally –- the internet spreads bad nutrition news like wildfire, people overwhelmingly have negative views about fast food.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 40% of the adults and 19% of children in the United States are obese. The increases risks of suffering from diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other negative health effects are a consequence of obesity.

Why does fast food contribute to obesity? The answer, as noted by San Diego-based Pathway Genomics, points to a combination of factors: unhealthy ingredients, larger portions, lower cost, and convenience.

Did the rise of fast food hurt traditional restaurants?

Retired Columbus, Ohio (home of White Castle and Wendys) retired resident Jill shared with me the following observation “I don’t think fast foods hurt any businesses. Like Mom taking a Sunday dinner break depending on fast food, it became another option to packing lunches, maybe easy cook foods like Hamburger Helper, or even skipping meals. If it had any impact, it would probably be on the groceries. That would probably be negligible. This might be evidenced by groceries now offering deliveries, fast pickups, and even easy to prepare healthy meals.”

Another Ohioan, David, know to me, shared his thought by email: “In my humble observation, the fast food restaurants began to replace the family diners, and the quaint little restaurants that all had the local flavor — always owned by someone who lived in the community. But once the national companies came in they were easily able to out-price and out-sell any kind of food that they had. Of course, the owner, not living in the local community, the national chains really had very little concern for the community in which they had a restaurant.”

Federal government involvement

Professor Chin Jou in her book Superizing Urban America presents an interesting federal government role during the 1960s in promoting fast food chains by providing loans, believing it was a way to revitalize the cities.

Among other facts she reports, “[t]he Small Business Administration had backed 18,000 franchise loans between 1967 and 1979, often subsidizing new Burger Kings and McDonalds; by 1996, the federal government had nearly $1 billion in 600 franchises of 52 fast food companies.” The policy rationale for this was that fast food restaurants were viewed as work opportunities and that consideration outweighed the health consequences.

The question of how it came about that fast food dominated the market is addressed in a March 2017 CityLab on-line report which mirrors Professor Jou’s analysis.

Distinguishing between fast food and fast casual

Now, along comes “Fast Casual,” and it’s hot in DC these days; examples abound along with the two singled out below.

Panera Bread,<> founded in 1993 in St. Louis, takes great pride in social responsibility and free range eggs, among healthy foods on their menus. Seven locations in Northwest DC can be found from Brookland to Foggy Bottom to H Street. Panera also owns Au Bon Pain.

Chopt Creative Salad Company now has eight locations in Northwest from Union Station to K Street. They tout no sugar but substitute agave nectar and honey.

“We’re Changing The Food Game”

The fast casual restaurant group Dig, which has yet to appear south of Philadelphia, has a mission statement worth sharing with our readers that nicely conveys what it is that differentiates fast casual from fast food restaurants:

“Every decision we make at Dig starts with a deep respect for our ingredients and where they come from. Our recipe development process always involves a conversation between chef and grower about what we really want to cook and harvest. We work one-on-one with 102 farmers and partners to bring those recipes to life, planning crops specifically for our menus. Mindful sourcing is our bread and butter.”

Fast food may be adapting

Corporate-owned McDonalds outlets started adapting a couple of years ago by taking on a new persona – new look and new menus featuring in-house prepared to order items in addition to its traditional fare. More recently this transformation has begun to be focused on franchisee-owned stores, such as Dupont East’s totally revamped store at 17th and Corcoran Streets, NW. The former dreary and ugly exterior has been completely remade into one exuding genuine curb appeal; so also the interior, totally updated and attractively designed for comfort and with different types of seating in separate areas giving customers a choice of how they wish to enjoy their meals –- maybe quickly or leisurely. A similar transformation can be found in its Adams Morgan location at Columbia Road and 18th Street, NW.

* Senior writer Larry Ray has served on Advisory Neighborhood Commissions for both Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights. He also has served as president of the North Columbia Heights Citizens Association. Presently, he serves as the liaison for DC Next Door-Columbia Heights.

Copyright © 2019 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §107 (“fair use”).