When the State of Michigan took some drastic measures to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in early 2020, a lot of businesses were negatively affected, especially those not considered 'essential'. One of the hardest hit sectors was the food service industry.
Downtown Ludington restaurants were poorly adapted for the restrictions, drive-thru businesses had been effectively zoned out of existence and incipience by actions taken late in the last century. Such trends have taken place in many other cities. In 2020, as drive-thru friendly fast food chains outside of Ludington such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell reported healthier bottom lines than ever, many restaurants with only dine-in and carry-out options shuttered or operated deeply in the red.
In Mount Pleasant, one restaurant operating off of the business route highway had an owner who adapted to the 'new normal' of food service and has found himself in the bull's eye of local city officials unwilling to adapt their own zoning codes. His story is a modern fable with a moral that should be understood by all who are still under the misconception that government is helpful to small businesses.
Taco Boy is a small independently owned restaurant owned and operated for 13 years by Robert Balitierrez, who inherited the business from his father. The business sits at 804 S Mission St (aka BR 127) within easy walking distance for Central Michigan University students. Like other restaurants without drive-thru options during the early days of the Covid-19 shutdowns, they faced a challenge to stay solvent. In the back of the store they had a drive-thru window which had been used by the prior business, but never by Taco Boy.
As you can see from the overhead view of the area, it looks as if the business would be a natural choice for drive-thru service, with cars entering to the right of the business and exiting to the left of it. So shortly after they learned that they were qualified to be called an 'essential' business, they announced that they would be able to respond to orders from their rear window:
And Taco Boy was able to eke out a living during the worst of the pandemic. Everything seemed to be going good by the time August 12, 2021 rolled around, but then an official from the City of Mount Pleasant paid the establishment a visit, and he wasn't there for the Tacos.
“Now it’s time for you to shut it down,” Baltierrez said he was told. Baltierrez said that his drive-thru was critical to keeping his business open and his employees employed, as the rise of variants has continued to suppress inside dining. Previously, Baltierrez erected a fence along the back of his property, closed off vehicular access to the back of a neighboring property and enclosed his garbage receptacle in accordance with the city’s wishes. “I’m willing to work with the city if the city is willing to work with me."
The city’s priority was stated as making sure that traffic doesn’t stack up, creating an unsafe situation for pedestrian and vehicular traffic in the restaurant’s parking lot, or at the very worst that it doesn’t back up into Mission Street. The City's spokesman denied anybody from the City said that Taco Boy would have to shut down, and told the press that they just wanted to get to a point where they could be successful.
The posturing between parties continued until mid-December when the City's Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) effectively nixed the drive-thru window. Only two of the six members of the ZBA rejected Taco Boy's application to set aside restrictions, but it was enough as only four showed up, and the City has disallowed a revote, citing that such repeat requests must wait a year first. Baltierrez reacted by saying: "I’m done. I just put my property up for sale. I’ve been in this town for 50 years. I hate to leave it this way.”
Neighboring businesses have their own drive-thrus, and the city concedes that Balitierrez's drive-thru window is causing no noise or traffic impacts. A report prepared by city staff on Balitierrez's drive-thru notes that "there have been no complaints regarding traffic coming or going from the site or issues associated with noise with adjoining properties."
Nevertheless, the city says it'll have to close. A petition has been started to try and get the City to revisit the issue before the Mount Pleasant mainstay closes for good. But will City leaders decide to relax a zoning code drafted before the pandemic changed the landscape of restaurant operation, or stick to the rigid codes and wave goodbye to the half-century old business?
This is one of many reasons why people lose faith in the political process, be it locally, the state or federal lawmakers doing it. If there is no issue with how Taco Boy is running and they have complied with what the city asked of them, there is no reason change things up like the city is asking Taco Boy to do. The way I look at it, if you have a business that is paying their taxes as well as bringing people into the city to enjoy some food at their restaurant it's a good thing for the city as those same people eating at Taco Boy are likely going to be doing other things while in town like shopping or going to the casino
One of the reasons I like Ludington City Manager Mitch Foster is the general shift of policy from the prior two guys (John Shay and Jim Miller) from strengthening zoning policy to smartly weakening zoning so as to attract growth and innovation. Foster is influenced to a degree by the writings of Engineer Charles Marohn, who has come out multiple times questioning the necessity of zoning. This has manifested itself in recent ordinances allowing for accessory dwelling units and short-term rentals, notions vilified and shut down by prior managers.
He has also broached the topic of drive-thrus coming back into town during the pandemic, so I'm hopeful that he will continue to foster less government intervention into the property of others. In the Taco Boy situation, it appears that the City of MP decided to support a strict building inspector using strict and 'arbitrary' zoning law over de-escalation. I have found through experience that most City governments would rather do incredibly dumb things rather than lose face.
I love Reagan's quote about the 9 most terrifying words.
Great posts both Dave and Willy, totally agree. And I remember quite clearly the Reagan quote too, fits exactly. If Taco Boy was there and successful 50 years it would seem to me there would be a lot more cogent and realistic alternatives than what happened. How many other restaurants can claim such a history there? None I'll bet, or very few at best. Must have terrific food to be in business that long. Most restaurants go under their first 3 -4 years, regardless of circumstances, they go down. This seems totally senseless and full of mularky to me anyhow. I hope the owner takes some legal action now, and wins. Plus, I'd like that city official' name that told him "now it's time for you to shut down". I would have shut him down if he told me that, verbally first, then physically if necessary, and face incarceration if necessary. This entire fiasco is pure BS.
Actually, this should be a national news story for the ABC, CBS, and NBC networks to broadcast. They would have a field day with this imho.
The news branches of the Big Three networks are more likely to side with the municipality nowadays. Power-hungry, uncaring corporations like other power-hungry, uncaring corporations (if they're not in competition with them).
Taco Boy will continue to have drive-thru service as City relents on strict zoning code interpretation.