Papa Murphy’s in Arcata’s Uniontown Shopping center. It’s a chain, but is it really a restaurant?

After recently reexamining the City of Arcata’s Formula Restaurant Ordinance — which caps the number of chain restaurants at nine and allows them only in certain neighborhoods — city staff has noticed some inconsistencies, and is now asking the Arcata City Council to weigh in on an important question: Should longtime food establishments Papa Murphy’s and Chester’s Chicken really be regulated as “formula restaurants?”

According to the staff report, there are currently two prospective formula restaurants (the report does not give names) looking to open in Arcata, which prompted the reevaluation of the ordinance and made staff realize that Chester’s and Papa Murphy’s — both included on the city’s list of formula restaurants — don’t exactly fit the criteria. Here are the definitions, from the staff report:

Restaurant, Cafe, Coffee Shop: A retail business selling ready-to-eat food and/or beverages for on-or off-premise consumption. These include eating establishments where customers are served from a walk-up ordering counter for either on-or off-premise consumption (“counter service”); and establishments where customers are served food at their tables for on-premise consumption (“table service”), that may also provide food for take-out.

Restaurant, Formula: A restaurant that is required by contractual or other arrangement to offer any of the following: standardized menus, ingredients, food preparation, decor, uniforms, architecture,signs or similar standardized features and which causes it to be substantially identical to more than 11 other restaurants regardless of ownership or location.

Although Chester’s Chicken — located inside of the Chevron Gas Station in Valley West — does technically meet most the criteria of being a “formula restaurant,” it is not run as an independent establishment. It is owned by the gas station and shares sales with it, and does not have its own till or employees. If the city considers Chester’s a formula restaurant, then it would also have to consider some other establishments — such as the deli inside of the Safeway — to be a formula restaurant, the staff report says.

As for the Papa Murphy’s in the Uniontown Shopping Center, those wonderfully cheap take-n-bake pizzas are not “ready-to-eat food,” which is included as part of the “restaurant, cafe, coffee shop” definition. “Strictly speaking, Papa Murphy’s is not a restaurant by the Code definition,” the staff report states.

So, what does this mean for these restaurants and for the City? The two businesses could simply be excluded from the formula restaurant regulation. To be clear, it wouldn’t affect their ability to stay open — they would just no longer be considered “formula restaurants” by the City. But this brings up questions on how formula restaurants should be regulated moving forward.

Also, removing these businesses from the cap would allow for two more formula restaurants to open in the City — one in Uniontown Shopping Center and one in Valley West. (The ordinance allows a new formula restaurant only if it replaces an existing formula restaurant, and allows for a maximum of five formula restaurants in Valley West, two in Uniontown, one on Janes Road and one in Northtown.) So staff is suggesting that the Council decide if it thinks these to businesses should be considered “formula restaurants” and, if so, how the language can be clarified.

Staff is also suggesting that the council consider eliminating the geographic restrictions for formula restaurants, except for in the downtown neighborhood. “This would remove the potentially unfair market conditions set by the geographical restrictions and allow competition among property owners for such restaurants,” Community Development Director David Loya writes in the staff report. “In addition, there may be social justice implications regarding the current distribution of fast food restaurants as codified — implications for access for HSU students, as well as other unintended consequences of this now 20-year-old regulation.” 

The Arcata City Council meets virtually tonight at 6 p.m. You can view the full agenda and directions on how to participate here.