Thursday, December 23, 2010

Grease and desist

Last week, the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine urged Mayor Bing to place a moratorium on new fast food restaurants in the city. This group repeatedly cited the fact that Detroit was home to 73 fast food restaurants, which seemed to be a substantial under-count. To explore this issue and determine the number and location of the city’s fast food restaurants, I looked to perhaps the most reliable sources: the fast food companies. I copied the location information for each company’s franchises in Detroit from each company's website. I compiled information for A&W, Burger King, Church’s Chicken, KFC, Long John Silver’s, McDonald’s, Popeye’s Chicken, Subway, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, and White Castle. According to the fast food companies, Detroit is home to a total of 195 fast food restaurants.

Every company has a presence in the city. Contrary to my own expectations, Subway is actually the chain with the largest presence in the city, with 52 locations.

As the map indicates, fast food restaurants are distributed evenly across the city – no area has been spared from a fast food restaurant. (Although it does look like the west side has a bigger grease tooth than the east side.)

In fact, if you are in Detroit, you’re never more than about a 5-minute drive – 1.5 miles – from a fast food restaurant, unless you are on the southeast corner of Belle Isle.

Unfortunately, however, this problem extends far beyond Detroit’s boarders. I tracked the same restaurants in a diverse mix of eight Detroit suburbs and the City of Grand Rapids. Shockingly, Detroit is the second-most under-served municipality. I calculated the number of fast food restaurants per 5,000 residents in each city, based 2005-2009 ACS population data.

These numbers question the wisdom of the committee’s plan – why focus on reducing supply of fast food in an area that has a comparatively low supply per resident?


  1. To answer your last question, it would that fast food restaurants make up a disproportionate amount of the number of the total available restaurants available in the city.

  2. And that's just the national chain franchises. Plenty of crap food that's not included in the chains.

  3. Peter-
    Oh, certainly! I can think of plenty of coney islands and burger joints, but that's a bit harder to track. I though chains would also allow me to compare the city and suburbs.

  4. Robert, you raise a good question regarding a moratorium for people who are undersupplied (albeit fast food). The real question seems to be access to fresh food.

    Perhaps a similar map with stores offering fresh produce for both city and suburbs.

    Unfortunately we can't easily legislate increased access. (Though we could offer tax incentives.)
    John Zettner

  5. I love posts like this. I can stare at maps for hours.

    I live in Ferndale -- my family and I spent a good long while counting fast food restaurants on our fingers, trying to come up with 10 for the city. We could get 8. As it turns out, the Subway and Burger King restaurants located on 8 Mile are actually in Royal Oak Township. The websites for both restaurants show Ferndale (48220), but that's because Royal Oak Twp doesn't uses Ferndale for mailing address purposes (which we didn't know at first.)

    Using your formula, that would put Ferndale at 1.89 fast food restaurants per 5000 residents.

    We can keep 10 restaurants if we include Royal Oak Twp residents (2,558) -- for a total of 23,700 in the 48220 zip code. That gives us 2.11.

    Either way saves me from topping the list!

  6. Hey there, wordslinger-

    Thanks for the tip! I've made the correction, and stripped Ferndale of its first place honors! I didn't know that Royal Oak Township addresses were listed as Ferndale. I'll have to watch for that in the future. Thanks for the tip!


  7. Last I heard, Subway is an interesting franchise system in that it is more "pyramidy" than others. The company makes money if you open a franchise, not really if you make a profit, so there is always this incentive to open more restaurants, even if it is across the street from an existing Subway. (I read this once in Fast Food Nation, but that was a long time ago, so Subway's system may have changed.)