Despite concerns from Garden District and Irish Channel neighborhood activists about a proliferation of national fast-food restaurants on Magazine Street, Chipotle has won tentative approval from city planners for its first location in New Orleans as it heads to City Council for a final decision.
Chipotle’s proposed first Orleans Parish location is 2801 Magazine Street, the former RadioShack space in the small strip building anchored by a Starbucks at the corner of Washington Avenue. Because the chain is “not very well known” in the city, design manager Cheryl Heidorn described its history to the City Planning Commission as based in classically trained chef Steve Ells’ idea of serving food based on fresh ingredients quickly.
“He was able to transform the food industry, and many have followed,” Heidorn told the commission Tuesday, Oct. 24. “I’m sure you’re aware of this kind of quick casual restaurant in the country and the world as a whole.”
The company also brought a letter of “strong support” from Tony Simmons, president and CEO of the Tabasco company, which is a partner with Chipotle.
“Their commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility are second to none,” Simmons wrote. “The restaurant model they embrace has become a favorite of the younger generation.”
The Magazine Street location will be unique, she said, with a recessed glass-and-metal storefront to allow an outdoor patio and custom oak furniture. It is designed “to harmoniously fit within the Garden District,” Heidorn said, especially in a building that has been traditionally held national brands.
“The strip of chain stores in this structure is somewhat of an anomaly for this street as a whole,” said local land-use consultant Avery Foret. “So I think Chipotle is a phenomenal fit here.”
Real-estate broker Ben Jacobson also noted the national brands that have come and gone in the building, such as a former Quiznos that is now a Smoothie King.
“As a lifelong New Orleanian, I know that Magazine Street is an extremely important cultural corridor, and nothing is more important than preserving its unique eccentric mix of retail, restaurants and other commercial establishments,” Jacobson said. “That said, Chipotle will only enhance the eclectic mix on Magazine Street. It is one of the top brands in the country and should be a welcome addition to the street.”
Richard Weber of Corporate Realty, who represents Chipotle throughout Louisiana and Mississippi, said New Orleans can be a difficult market for national brands to find locations. Based on the walkability and successful business climate of Magazine Street and other factors, however, the Garden District site is a “natural fit” for Chipotle, Weber said.
“The community demand for Chipotle to be a part of New Orleans has been high for quite some time,” Weber said. “As I understand it, Chipotle has been one of the most requested restaurants that the city has.”
The full-court press on behalf of Chipotle was met by three neighborhood leaders who have been involved in Chipotle’s outreach — Shelley Landrieu and Allain Hardin of the Garden District, and Bill Sawicki of the Irish Channel. Landrieu told the commission that the Garden District is appealing the designation of Chipotle as a standard restaurant instead of fast-food, and that the neighborhood opposes any fast-food uses.
“It really fits what a fast food restaurant is,” Landrieu said, citing the counter service, self-serve fountain drinks, and trash cans for customers to bus their own tables. “It’s very much like a McDonald’s or a Burger King.”
Hardin said that Magazine Street is known as a haven for New Orleans culture, and that the city should protect it from dilution by national brands that visitors can find in their own homes.
“There are fast food outlets throughout the city, but Magazine Street is not the place for it,” Hardin said. “The iconic nature of the street, we do not want to lose that.”
Sawicki agreed that allowing Chipotle to open as a standard restaurant will encourage other fast-food restaurants to follow its example in attempting to locate on Magazine Street.
“We should not be encouraging a proliferation of fast-food facilities by making them easier to get approved,” Sawicki said.
In rebuttal, Chipotle’s local land-use attorney Mike Sherman praised the advocates for their defense of the neighborhoods, and said their arguments about the definitions of fast-food restaurants and national brands have merit. Those discussions — such as whether New Orleans should implement the sort of “formula retail” restrictions seen in other cities — should be discussed on their own in the future, however, and do not apply to the application by Chipotle which fits current law.
“If you’re concerned about those issues, we’re turning a vacant RadioShack into a Chipotle in a center that’s had Quiznos and Starbucks and Floor & Decor,” Sherman said. “This is not the test case for ‘national’ versus ‘local’ or for new restaurant definitions.”
The request drew little discussion from the City Planning Commissioners. Eugene Green said he agreed with the city staff’s opinion that the proposal fits within current law, and the commission voted 5-1 in favor of it. Their recommendation to approve the request now proceeds to the City Council for a final decision.