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Neighbors Cry ‘Fowl’ Over Fast Food Aroma

By XIAOLI ZHOU Special to the Planet
Friday December 12, 2003


When some people think of West Berkeley, the first thing that comes to mind is a greasy fried-chicken smell, and that’s enough to make neighbors of Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits on San Pablo Avenue broiling mad. 

Even after Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits at San Pablo and Delaware Street upgraded their odor control system this fall, residents say the smell many of them loathe hasn’t gone away. 

“It is definitely still present,” said Tim Arai, who lives one block away from the restaurant. “It all depends on what the wind is doing now.” 

Since the franchise opened on July 3, neighbors have sent a slew of complaints to the Berkeley City Council about the odors emanating from the restaurant. Arai said he’s been trading e-mails with other neighbors whose territories have also been invaded by the pungent smell. Some people, he said, tell him their houses are “smoked” with it. 

“What the hell is that smell?” Arai mused while sitting outside of a cafe in downtown Berkeley on a recent afternoon. “It’s not only fried chicken. It smells (like) dirty grease!” 

As a vegetarian, Arai finds the odors particularly unbearable. At one point, he said, the odors became “a mixture of grease and fried chicken and some kind of deodorizer.”  

The smell is also unpredictable, he said. “Sometimes it’s faint, sometimes strong. Sometimes it lasts twenty minutes, sometimes a couple of hours.” 

“It’s just fried-chicken smell,” said Larry Velasco, a Popeyes manager who runs a handful of branches in the Bay Area. “It’s kind of normal.” 

The restaurant is open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, 363 days a year. Though Velasco acknowledged they had already made technical adjustments to better control the odors, he declined to make any further comment over the ongoing skirmish. 

“What I can tell you now is that we’ll be able to solve the issue,” he said. 

Still, neighbors aren’t convinced. They say the smell travels randomly, wafting between blocks. 

“I’m cultivating a rose garden,” said Elaine Eastman who lives on the corner of Hearst Avenue and Curtis Street, more than a block away from the restaurant. “I want to smell my roses, not fried chicken.” 

Eastman said she enjoys spending a lot of time in her backyard, so even though she only intermittently encounters the odors, she deems it “bothersome.” 

Linda Maio, a Berkeley city councilwoman who represents the area, said the city has been working hard to find a good solution. 

“We want to make sure they’ve done anything possible to control the smell,” Maio said of Popeyes. “We are not going to tolerate any offensive smell in the neighborhood.” 

In a recent letter to the city, Popeyes said the restaurant has installed the best possible odor-reduction unit, given the limited available space on the restaurant’s roof. 

The city has checked out the equipment, said Maio, who was on a similar smell mission in Berkeley almost a decade ago. 

“It seems to me it’s working now, although it really depends on what they’re doing inside and if it’s a windy day,” she added. 

Eastman said neighborhood residents were already worried about the fried-chicken smell when Popeyes first proposed to replace Rich’s Bulky Burger over two years ago.  

“But we were assured by Popeyes that it would not be a problem because they would put in special equipment,” said Eastman. “We thought they were trying to be a good neighbor, so when the zoning adjustment board passed the project, we didn’t appeal it to the City Council.”  

“It must be understood that they promised there would be no smells at all emanating from the restaurant,” said Paul Shain, who lives at the opposite end of the block from Popeyes. Shain said the restaurant’s building permit required it to be odor-free. 

The city permit orders Popeyes to control cooking odors to “prevent complaints from residents in the adjacent neighborhood and to minimize adverse impacts on neighboring properties.” 

“If I were going to buy a house, I certainly wouldn’t buy a house if it smells like that,” said Eastman. “Would you? I wouldn’t.” 

Eastman said she’s never been to the restaurant because she simply doesn’t want to show any support to “such a poor neighbor.” 

To properly document the smell, Maio said, the city has asked the neighbors to report any odors as soon as they smell them. 

“As long as the neighbors are not comfortable about it, we’ll keep on working on it,” she said. “That’s my job.” 

Maio assigned aide Brad Smith to go down and “sniff” whenever the councilwoman gets incoming calls from neighbors—even during off-hours. 

Smith said he’s been unable to smell the odors since the restaurant recently installed the new system. There are “a bunch of different noses” in the neighborhood, he said, and he designates himself an independent “common nose” assigned to help verify the odors. 

Though the city requires residents to log the times and dates when they encounter the odors, Eastman isn’t complying because she said it’s a pain to carry a piece of paper all the time—but Arai is. 

“If it’s not solved, I’d imagine the neighbors will come together to sue the restaurant,” said Arai. “We might start looking into that as an option.” 

Not every neighbor suffers. 

“I made it a point to park a half a block away and walk up to the place, sniffing as I went,” Zan Turner said in an e-mail. “Couldn’t smell a thing until I was inside—and even then it wasn’t disgusting.” 

“I bet neighbors complain about anything new and different,” said Tibet Willis, a Wells Fargo employee who has frequently driven over to Popeyes to buy meals since the branch was open. “My grandmother lives here and she’s never complained.” 

But Arai is determined to fight to the end. 

“We’ll keep on nagging until things get done,” he said.