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But Where's the Beef?

By Julian E. Barnes and Philip P. Pan

You can get McNuggets in Moscow's Red-Square, a tasty Filet-O-Fish on the Champs Elysees in Paris, and a juicy Big Mac on the beach in Hong Kong.

But in Harvard Square, the intellectual and cultural mecca of New England, there are no Golden Arches, no Burger Kings, no Kentucky Fried Chickens.

A Cambridge zoning ordinance prohibits fast food restaurants throughout the city, unless the business can obtain a special permit.

And in Harvard Square, that's nearly impossible. The ordinance allows neighborhood coaltions to keep national fast food chains out.

Burger King, Popeye's Famous Fried Chicken and Kentucky Fried Chicken each have two restaurants located in Cambridge. McDonald's restaurants can be found in East Cambridge, Central Square and Porter Square. The Board of Zoning Appeals granted special permits to allow these restraunts after they met guidelines on litter, parking and neighborhood impact.

But powerful community organizations, such as the Harvard Square Defense Fund, consistently oppose fast food restaurants that seek to open in Harvard Square.

Last spring, Harvard Square residents successfully defeated a proposal to open a Boston Chicken franchise on Brattle St. Porter and Central Squares lack the organized neighborhood groups that can lobby against the establishment of fast food franchises.

"So much of our opinions are based on what the neighborhood opposition is," says Lisa DeLima, a member of the Board of Zoning Appeals for the last 10 years. "In my entire 10 years on the board, we have never based a decision solely on legality. We do not operate on precedent."

Speaking for much of the local community, Cambridge Mayor Alice K. Wolf insists fast food restaurants would destroy the sanctity and unique character of Harvard Square. The presence of high-profit fast food chains in the Square would drive up rents and, she argues, force the smaller, family-owned restaurants and stores out of business.

"We have a hard time keeping those businesses that don't make a high profit in the square," says Wolf. "If you have to make piles of profits to pay the rents, it's hard to have a shoemaker or a struggling artist."

Despite the mayor's position, hungry Harvard students have long clamored for the opportunity to order a Whopper, medium fries and a Coke.

But if students want a Burger King, they can take the five-minute subway ride to Central Square, says Gladys P. Gifford, one of the founders of the Harvard Square Defense Fund. "Let's have one place on the planet that doesn't have the same thing," says Gifford. National fast food chains would drive out traditional Square mainstays such as Elsie's Famous Sandwiches, Mr. and Mrs. Bartley Burger Cottage, Pinocchio's Pizza and Subs and the Tasty Sandwich Shop, she says.

"It won't be just one. If McDonald's gets in, then there is no case against Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy's--and they all wind up in the Square," Gifford says.

But at least one local restauranteur says he can handle the competition. Bill Bartley, son of the original Mr. Joseph Bartley, says his 31-year-old eatery could easily survive if a McDonald's opened in the Square. "I'll go up against anything. We can beat them, but obviously we don't want them next door," says Bartley. "I wouldn't be down in town hall fighting it."

The service and quality that only family-owned businesses can provide will allow them to compete against national corporate franchises, says Bartley.

In fact, he argues, the zoning law has not prevented national chains from invading the Square. "By my definition of a chain, [the ordinance] doesn't seem like it's doing anything," says Bartley. "The chains are here. I think it's a reality."

Familiar chains like Pizzaria Uno, Bertucci's Brick Oven Pizzaria, TCBY and Au Bon Pain already dot the Square landscape--although Ron Shaich, co-founder and CEO of Au Bon Pain, insists his French-styled cafe is not "fast food."

"I'd be insulted if people thought of us that way," he says. "We're not a big company. We're home grown. This company has a soul. It is very much a part of Harvard Square."

Au Bon Pain, which opened in 1983, has become a landmark in Harvard Square and is the company's flagship and "favorite store," says Shaich. The chain, which was born in Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace, has outlets throughout the Northeast and generates several million dollars in revenue each year.

Although Shaich is not unilaterally opposed to fast food restaurants penetrating the Square, he says the community should think seriously about the overall effect of allowing a McDonald's to move in. "I think a community has a right and responsibility to zone and plan and control it," says Shaich. "As somebody who lives in Harvard Square, I think it is important that the whole of Harvard Square remains something."

For many students with a late-night urge for a Big Mac and a shake, however, raspberry and cheese croissants and Orangina just don't cut it. On the other hand, what would happen if the Chessmaster started hanging out at Mickey D's?

"It doesn't seem odd to me that Au Bon Pain is there and McDonalds isn't," says Assistant Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Jann Matlock.

"Au Bon Pain is a cafe with outdoor seating, it's a meeting place. A faculty member can go there for coffee with a graduate student--you don't get that at McDonald's," Matlock added.

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