The owner/operator of the Kwik Way hamburger drive-in at 550 Lake Park Avenue—Alex and Charlie Hahn—are trying once again to replace the ailing, unprofitable business with a major hamburger chain.

Their earlier attempt was in 2004, when a McDonald’s franchisee was poised to take over the Kwik Way’s building. This attempt was ultimately stymied by the City’s Planning and Zoning Division and the Planning Commission, which responded to strong opposition to the plan from the community.

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[For more information about the “Say no to McDonald’s on Lake Park Ave!” campaign see this archive.]

If the Hahns get their way, the Kwik Way will become the next location for FatBurger, a Santa Monica–based corporation with 86 locations in 14 states and Canada.

The location would be open from late morning until as late as midnight, but would not be open for breakfast.

FatBurger is marketed as a “quick casual, take-out and sit down hamburger restaurant.” FatBurger prides itself that its food is freshly prepared and cooked to order. “We are not fast food,” said Seymour Floyd, of FatBurger’s real-estate division. “We cook to order.”

Burgers, rings, and hand-scooped shakes

FatBurger’s signature products include hamburgers, chili dogs, steak fries, fresh-cut onion rings, fresh-squeezed lemonade, and hand-scooped ice-cream shakes. Their menu also includes a grilled-chicken sandwich, a turkeyburger, and chili cheese fries.

FatBurger’s largest standard hamburger, the Kingburger, is a half pound (net weight before cooking), although “double your patty” is an option for all items. Their smallest hamburger is called “Baby Fat.”

FatBurger also sponsors the occasional “Triple King Challenge,” which involves eating one triple Kingburger:

It may not seem like much, but it’s a pound and a half of meat, all the fixings, plus a bun. Trust us—it’s a challenge.

Although some of its advertisements have been dismissive toward vegetarians—suggesting that vegetarians should go eat a tree, while their carnivorous counterparts enjoy a FatBurger, or “Do you really think man clawed his way to the top of the food chain to eat soy?”—their menu now includes a veggie burger. Ironically, their only salad menu entry, the Fat Salad Wedge, is not vegetarian, being topped with diced bacon.

FatBurger would mainly stay within existing footprint

The franchisee’s plan would be to work primarily within the footprint of the existing masonry-block building, with the exception of an additional storage area at the rear.

Although the current Kwik Way has no interior seating for customers, the new FatBurger would have seating inside for 28 customers, in a combination of 2-person, 4-person, and 6-person booths.

The creation of this seating within the confines of the existing footprint is made possible by more-efficient use of the space, according to James Heilbroner, the architect for the project and president of Architectural Dimensions in Walnut Creek.

Drive-thru window would be utilized

FatBurger would continue to utilize the Kwik Way’s drive-thru window to serve customers who arrive in and stay in their cars, in addition to those who walk up to pick up or come to sit down.

Unlike fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, the drive-thru window doesn’t drive a FatBurger’s business, FatBurger’s Floyd said:

Our concept is not conducive to drive-thru. Because we cook to order, our hamburgers take from 8 to 12 minutes to cook. No one wants to wait in a drive-thru line that long.

Mr. Floyd said they encourage their customers to call, fax, or text message their order and then use the drive-thru for picking it up. Mr. Floyd said that only eight or nine of their locations nationwide have drive-thru windows.

Despite Mr. Floyd’s statements de-emphasizing the importance of drive-thru business, the franchisee—Chester McGlockton, head of All Pro Eatery d/b/a FatBurger—was clear that they would not consider closing the drive-thru window. They “consider [the presence of the drive-thru window] a gift,” and consider it particularly important because the seating for 28 customers is a much smaller capacity than the typical FatBurger location, which seats 74 customers.

Traffic associated with the drive-thru window—particularly the possibility that cars would queue into highly trafficked Lake Park Avenue—was a major, though not the only, concern of the Planning and Zoning Division during its 2004 review of the proposal to replace the Kwik Way with a McDonald’s.

City staff were concerned that the drive-thru would not only create congestion on Lake Park Avenue but would interfere with pedestrians, because Lake Park Avenue “is an important pedestrian connection between the Grand and Lakeshore Avenue shopping districts.”

Commitment of 15 to 20 years foreseen

Tuesday night, the Kwik Way owner/operator, Alex and Charlie Hahn, and representatives of FatBurger corporate and the franchisee met with some members of the community—most of whom had been involved in organizing the community’s opposition to the planned McDonald’s in 2004— at a meeting convened by city council member Pat Kernighan.

When asked, none of the parties to the proposed deal disclosed how long the lease would last. (It is possible that this term had not yet been worked out.)

However, FatBurger’s real-estate representative said that any time FatBurger opens a new location, they look it as a long-term investment. “15 to 20 years,” Mr. Floyd said.

Recent proposal for a mixed-use residential-over-retail development forms the backdrop

The Hahns’ resurrection of a plan for a new hamburger restaurant on the site, after the community’s rebuke of McDonald’s three years ago, takes place in a context where many in the community have since formed very different hopes and expectations for the site.

Less than a year after the Planning Commission rejected the Hahns’ appeal of an adverse determination by the City, developers Dave Latina and Michael Simmons, of Paramount Development Group (PDG), began working with the Hahns with the goal of developing a mixed-use development on the Kwik Way site, with retail on the ground floor and several floors of condominium residences above.

PDG invited significant public input into their design: first with a series of meetings with a large group of neighborhood representatives that provided initial comments, then with outreach at the Grand Lake Famers Market on two consecutive Saturdays, and culminating with a public meeting in Barnet Hall of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church on October 24, 2005.

The dramatic turnaround in fortunes for the site—both in substance and in attitude, where the Hahns and the community transformed from adversaries into partners—prompted a local newspaper to dub the process the “Miracle on Lake Park Avenue.”

Despite the high hopes for the development’s success, that partnership dissolved in February 2006, and the Hahns entered into negotiations with another developer, Tom Peterson, of Lakeshore Partners. That path, too, hit a dead end.

[For more information on the dissolution of the Hahn-PDG partnership and the negotiations with Tom Peterson, see Pamela Drake’s “Local developer: mixed-use development on Kwik Way site still works.”]

Community members keep alive hope for a comprehensive development

Notwithstanding protestations at Monday’s meeting by Alex Hahn that a mixed-used development is not feasible, some community members expressed their preference for a mixed-use development—that they said would provide more-vibrant retail and needed housing and heal the gap in the pedestrian connection between Grand and Lakeshore Avenue business districts created by the Kwik Way’s driveways and drive-thru traffic—rather than locking in an automotive-oriented suburban-model drive-thru facility for the next 15 to 20 years.

City council member Pat Kernighan agreed that a mixed-use development was preferable but doubted whether it was economically feasible in the near term given her assessment of the current housing market.

[Pamela Drake reports that Dave Latina has said recently that “No doubt the market has cooled but we have not seen downward pricing in the Grand Lake area.… The Grand Lake area is not overbuilt and almost no new construction is being offered. We continue to feel this is a viable project.” See “Local developer: mixed-use development on Kwik Way site still works.”]

When a community member suggested that it would be better to have such a mixed-use development with FatBurger as a ground-floor retail tenant, franchisee McGlockton agreed, saying he would prefer that, too, but that it was up to Alex Hahn to allow such a development to go forward.