Sunday, July 29, 2007

Stuck in neutral on idling?

This is what I get for buying Harry Potter gear from Taiwan. The damned crystal ball keeps flashing “Danger!” as it hazily depicts a gas pump. Even the Skipper and Gilligan must know by now that rising fuel prices have doubly cursed restaurants, leaving customers with less money to spend in the dining room while driving up the price of supplies at the back door. So clearly the ball's foresight function must need an adjustment. But the gas-related problem it’s predicting for restaurants—a dire one indeed—seems vividly real. Sort of like a car wreck.

Indeed, the possibility seems to glow a little brighter with every war report from the Middle East or each scary prognostication from Al Gore. It’s showing what I could swear are people laying across a restaurant drive-thru lane, stopping business as they yell at patrons to stop polluting the environment and maintaining our dependence on foreign oil. Waiting in a car, they’re screaming, is no way to be served at a restaurant. They obviously don’t appreciate that fast feeders generate more than half their business through a pick-up window.

It’d be easy to dismiss the critics as crazies, or at least zealots, if it weren’t for all the information that’s flowing on the internet right now about car idling, the new bugaboo for a nation wincing at the prospect of global warming as it simultaneously yelps about paying $60 to tank up the Camry. Message boards, blogs and sites are filled with calls for curbing car idling, an echo of the successful efforts in recent years to keep trucks from sitting stationary with the engine running. Many expressly cite restaurant drive-thrus as a fuel-conservation opportunity waiting to be realized.

And those advocates are hardly fringe elements. Consider this advisory: “Try parking your car and going into restaurants, banks, and the like instead of idling in drive-up lanes.” It comes from the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, though you’ll find it echoed in the recommendations of New Hampshire regulatory groups and plenty of other parties.

One posting indicated that 11 Canadian cities have already considered legislation that would prohibit cars from idling for more than three minutes.

The proposals would not outlaw drive-thrus outright, since patrons could conceivably shut down and start their cars and then restart them as they moved up in line. But certainly the convenience of that service mode would be tempered. Ditto for parking and going inside a restaurant instead of waiting in a queue of cars. Without the convenience of the drive-thru, might some time-harried patrons skip a quick-service place altogether?

Santa Cruz, Calif., reportedly banned restaurant drive-thrus years ago. But the present chatter on the internet does not cite a town, city or county that is currently considering car-idling limits.

Yet the momentum is clearly building, as the yakking about the prospect continues to grow louder on the internet.

Which brings me back to my crystal ball, as flawed as it is. I’m hoping it can show me that magical moment when the restaurant industry will start talking about the matter, or at least about how it plans to cope.

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