It’s perfumed by citrus blossoms at the moment, but there’s a real stink brewing in the bucolic town of Ojai.
Citizens who guard the city’s rustic sophistication with pride are steamed at a local businessman who intends to open a sandwich shop downtown.
Jersey Mike’s Subs is a national chain with more than 300 outlets. In a town filled with organic farmers, artists and environmentalists, chain stores are about as welcome as a tract of McMansions.
“We don’t want a Pottery Barn right next to a Starbucks,” said Candy Pope, an Ojai resident who was sipping a frosty beer at Giorgio’s, a family-owned sandwich joint a few blocks down the street from where Jersey Mike’s plans to open. “It’s the homogenization of America. Ojai is a really unique place and we really want to maintain its uniqueness.”
City officials say they can’t stop Jersey Mike’s from coming to town. The space is already zoned for a restaurant and the franchisee, Dan Burrell, has agreed to restrictions that have kept other fast-foot chains outside city limits.
But city leaders are concerned enough that City Manager Jere Kersnar is looking into ways to discourage an influx of cookie-cutter shops and restaurants.
Ojai already restricts signs (neon is a no-no), has a say in building design and won’t allow drive-through windows of any kind. Its small population of 8,000 and strict growth controls have kept many franchises out of the Ventura County city.
A few regional restaurant chains, including Exotic Thai, Jim & Rob’s Fresh Grill and Seafresh, have locations in Ojai. There’s also a Vons, a Bank of America and chain gas stations just outside city borders.
But what seems to draw citizens’ ire the most are national food and retail outlets.
“It isn’t chains per se that people have a problem with,” Kersnar said. “It’s certain types of chains.”
There was a call from Subway Restaurants two months ago inquiring about retail space, he said. And now the hubbub over Jersey Mike’s.
Residents have made their displeasure clear in letters to the local newspaper and during council meetings. Debate is also raging on a community blog run by the Ojai Valley News.
Jeff Furchtenicht commented that a lack of chain stores is the first thing visitors notice.
“It is one of the things that attracts people here, and gets them ready for something different, for something special,” he wrote. “It is one of the things that drives our quality of life, which those of us lucky enough to live here know is not offered anywhere else within a thousand miles.”
Others threatened to boycott the shop, or start a petition drive to outlaw future franchises. But a comment posted by a B. Beckett suggested that some residents would welcome an unpretentious sandwich at a good price.
“If the owner lives in Ojai, and is committed to the community, why is it any of my business that he owns other shops as well?” Beckett said. “I would choose a sub shop chain over another ‘bistro’ or gallery any day.”
Other cities are testing stronger measures to guard against chains. Port Townsend, Wash., set on a hilly peninsula overlooking a seaport, bans chain stores in its historic district, said City Manager David Timmons.
Outside the district, chains must adhere to restrictions on trademarks, uniforms, menus, color scheme and signs, Timmons said. They can’t locate on a corner and there can’t be more than one national chain in any given shopping area, he said.
The tightened rules have had a chilling effect on prospective franchises in the year since they were enacted, he said. Sandwich shop chain Quiznos made some inquiries, but withdrew its application after reviewing the regulations.
Nantucket, Mass., passed similar restrictions for its central shopping district in April. In coastal Carmel, regulations banning standardized uniforms and menus in restaurants work to discourage fast-food chains, said Kersnar, who was its city manager from 1993 to 2000.
The Internet makes it easy for cities to replicate what others are doing, Timmons said.
“Everyone is copying the language from everyone else,” he said. “And the grass roots is driving it. Citizens are demanding this.”
In Ojai, citizen action has a long history of success.
Thirty years ago, Pat Weinberger was among a vocal group of residents who battled plans by California Department of Transportation to widen to four lanes a two-lane highway that is the city’s main artery to Ventura.
After years of protests and lawsuits, the citizens prevailed. Over the years, residents have pushed for other laws that keep Ojai’s growth rate among the slowest in California.
Weinberger said she and others realized early on that they would have to fight to preserve what they loved about their hometown.
From a downtown park, one looks down upon Mission-style buildings lining the main street, the graceful post office tower and jagged mountain ranges beyond.
An open-air shopping arcade is lined with one-of-a-kind boutiques and restaurants, both trendy and casual.
At sunset, locals pause to admire the “pink moment” when the Topa Topa Mountains blush a vibrant rose before fading into night.
“Look at it. Where are you going to find that elsewhere?” said Weinberger, 83. “Other downtowns are glitzy. Ojai’s a diamond, not a rhinestone.”
Of course, there are drawbacks to all that beauty. Ojai’s average home price of $610,000 is keeping young families out. That reduces school enrollment and causes the district to lay off teachers.
And the city’s budget is so dependent on tourism that when the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, a major tax contributor, shut down in 2005 for renovations, a financial crisis ensued and the former city manager was fired.
Jersey Mike’s owner said he is trying not to be insulted by the town’s cold shoulder. He’s been a city resident for five years and enjoys its rustic charm as much as anyone, Burrell said.
At his two other Jersey Mike’s, in Ventura and Camarillo, Burrell often donates sandwiches and time for fundraisers, he said. In Ojai, he is donating sandwiches to the Ojai Valley Youth Foundation for a golf fundraiser.
When the shop opens in early June, he’ll sell sandwiches for $1 apiece to entice customers.
“I’m going to give it my best shot,” he said. “If there are picketers outside, I’m just going to go feed them.”