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Santa Monica’s Fast-Food Ban Could Have Consequences For Restaurant Takeout

A renewed city ordinance outlawing takeaway food at the Promenade is inadvertently targeting to-go sales at local restaurants, too

Daily Life In Los Angeles Amid Coronavirus Outbreak Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
Mona Holmes is a reporter for Eater Los Angeles and a regular contributor to KCRW radio. She has covered restaurants, dining, and food culture since 2016. In 2022, the James Beard Foundation nominated her for a Jonathan Gold Local Voice Award.

Way back in the wild world of 2018, the Santa Monica City Council voted unanimously to issue an Urgency Interim Zoning Ordinance prohibiting fast-food restaurants with more than 100 locations nationwide from opening on the Third Street Promenade. At the time, the ordinance was designed to avoid a cluster of big-money fast-food business on the Promenade (in part because of the high rents there, which are easier for national chains to pay), thus maintaining some of the pedestrian plaza’s local charm. Last week, the council even extended the ordinance.

Sounds mostly fine. Well, as it turns out, maybe not. As it turns out, the specific language within the city ordinance expressly prohibits any establishment on Third Street Promenade where “orders [are] placed at a walk-up window, counter, or machine,” “payment [is completed] prior to food consumption,” and “food [is] served with disposable, one-time, or limited-use wrapping, containers, or utensils.” Which, during the ongoing pandemic, is every restaurant.

The fast food ban applies to which businesses are permitted to open, and does not apply to restaurants that have less than 150 locations. But with the pandemic here for the duration, a state-mandated, regionally-specific ban on all on-site dining still in effect across Los Angeles County (and indeed, the 11-county Southern California region as a whole), Santa Monica’s ordinance — at least for sticklers — posed a temporary problem that was fixed via Santa Monica officials and Downtown Santa Monica Inc. who passed an emergency ordinance at the beginning of the pandemic to ease restrictions surrounding takeout, curbside pickup, and — when permitted outdoor dining.

That leaves Promenade restaurants like Barney’s Beanery, Silverlake Ramen, and Azule Taqueria now functioning as fast-food/takeout joints while foot traffic is way down. Everyone is struggling, chain or not. Moving forward, there needs to be a conversation around takeout in the casual sense.

It’s also unclear what kind of local-led revitalization the Promenade can expect as long as the current ordinance remains in place, at least for this year. One of the more recent tenants, Social Eats food hall, doesn’t necessarily fall under the ordinance’s restrictions concerning fast-food, but largely operates as fast food. And with the ordinance now extended, the language won’t be put back in front of Santa Monica’s Planning Commission for some time. LA County public health officials said today that one person is dying every eight minutes from COVID-19 at overworked area hospitals and that intensive care unit bed capacity is still at roughly zero percent, meaning there’s no sign that a broader restaurant reopening any time soon.

The Promenade, meanwhile, is in its own broader sticky situation as the aging thoroughfare tries to find ways to stay relevant with shoppers and tourists.

Throughout 2020, Third Street Promenade has been a shell of itself, with considerably less visitors thanks to the pandemic — and national infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci estimating that the country may not return back to ‘normal’ until late 2021 at the earliest.

CORRECTIONS: A previous version of this story was unclear about the Third Street Promenade Stabilization & Economic Vitality Plan, which is focused on converting public space. For clarity, the mentioned fast-food ordinance’s intention is to provide space for regional brands that uphold the character of the Third Street Promenade, and does The ordinance also does not apply to restaurants with less than 150 locations.