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Laguna Beach


“One-of-a-kind” Subway Beach Café planned for downtown

By SARA HALL

A permit applicant that “bent over backwards” to create a unique Laguna Beach location that avoids the formulaic approach of its parent franchise brand, Subway, was approved this week by the Planning Commission for a business downtown.

After an hour-long discussion, commissioners voted 5-0 on Wednesday (Feb. 2) in favor of a Conditional Use Permit and a Coastal Development Permit to convert an existing cat lounge and café (previously Catmosphere) at 381 Forest Ave., Suite A-100, to the Subway Beach Café. The project still needs final approval from City Council.

Commissioners also added conditions that stipulate a local artist create the interior mural, prohibit the standard Subway colors and logo on wrappers and cups and require dedicated employee parking.

Most of the discussion revolved around how unique the Laguna Beach location needs to be, the precedent it might be setting for other formula-based business applications in downtown and how it relates to the city’s pending update of the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP).

The DSP is a planning document that serves to guide growth, design and development standards in downtown, and aims to preserve and enhance the unique character of the neighborhood. An updated plan was adopted by the City Council in July 2020, the California Coastal Commission approved DSP-related changes to the Local Coastal Program on December 15 and council approved the CCC modifications on January 25.

Subway Beach Café would have a one-of-a-kind menu with offerings only available at this location and would be consistent with the DSP, Principal Planner Martina Caron explained at this week’s Planning Commission meeting. 

The commission previously reviewed the project on January 5 and continued the item after finding it too formulaic with its parent franchise brand for a business downtown. 

At the time, commissioners were torn considering other factors like the applicant’s strong community presence, his effort to distance the project from other Subway Cafés and make the design fit in with Laguna Beach and the service it would bring to the neighborhood. However, it’s still a formulaic/franchise business and the merchandise (food items on the menu) isn’t unique enough, several conflicted commissioners agreed at last month’s meeting. They continued the item to allow the applicant more time to customize the menu.

One of a kind Subway Beach Cafe interior

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

A rendering of the proposed interior of Subway Beach Café

The applicant updated the application and revised the proposed menu to include sandwiches, salads and ingredients that are not found in any other Subway store, Caron said. Examples of such ingredients include fresh sliced mozzarella, fresh baked croissants and one net carb bread with zero sugar. 

Other items include unique toppings (pumpkin seeds, fresh shaved parmesan, oregano, Provençal herbs, etc.), a croissant breakfast sandwich, garlic buttered bread, gourmet coffee drinks and freshly baked pastries.

Additionally, the applicant is planning to incorporate a panini grill, something that would only be available at the Subway Beach Café. 

The Café will not offer traditional soda fountain drinks, but rather farmed-sourced handcrafted beverages. The juices will include combination flavors like watermelon and cucumber or passion fruit orange guava. Drink names include the Pacific Coast Chiller, Tide Pool Cooler and Sublime Sea Breeze.

The location would also offer take-out and live entertainment.

There will be more than 50 menu offerings not found in a traditional Subway, noted applicant Daniel Riscalla.

“We really put in effort here on introducing some unique elements to the menu, both in terms of ingredients, as well as new sandwiches, as well as modified sandwiches,” he said. 

Customers can still order any combination of unique ingredients, Riscalla added. 

Sandwiches on the proposed one-of-a-kind menu would be named after local landmarks, events, or subtle nods to Laguna. Laguna exclusive sandwiches would include the Totuava-cado Toast, The 1927 Panini and the Croissant Bay Breakfast. The café will also offer a new, LB-exclusive salad called the Treasure Island Salad.

“All of them are unique builds, unique ingredients – they don’t exist anywhere, you can’t find them at any Subway,” Riscalla said. “Those would be very unique to Laguna Beach.”

Other sandwiches would be modified builds from the standard Subway menu, but still have a local Laguna twist: Thousand Steps Club, the Spicy Laguna Tuna and Main Beach Marinara. 

“There is some version of them in existing Subways, but they are significantly modified with the addition of new ingredients and a different way to build the sandwich,” he explained.

There was also some discussion about how to prevent this unique Laguna Beach Subway Café from being replicated elsewhere. 

“I feel as though now we’ve dialed this in, in a very local, specific way,” said Commissioner Susan Whitin. “I think we need to patent it so it can’t now be called the new standard for the Subway café, otherwise it will become formulaic.”

Although several agreed that it’s impossible to enforce this outside of the city.

Riscalla said he doesn’t plan on opening this type Subway café outside of Laguna. Others who might want to try something similar would have to go through a lot of hoops and get a lot of additional approvals, he noted, so it’s not the most feasible idea.

Because of the effort that has gone into making this location so unique, Commission Chair Pro Tem Jorg Dubin agreed that it’s doubtful other franchise owners would try to duplicate or copy it in any way.

The applicant and staff have worked hard to make it unique, Whitin agreed. 

“If this becomes the new standard then it’s just another Subway,” she said. “I’m not disagreeing…in that I don’t think we can control it and neither can the franchisee – the applicant – it now has corporate ownership. So, I don’t know the answer to it, I’m just pointing it out that we’re doing back flips and so is the applicant and that’s terrific, (but) our main goal is to ensure that we don’t have just another standard, old Subway and this could become the new standard Subway.”

Since they can’t control possible copycat cafés outside of the city, they can take pride in it first being developed specifically for Laguna Beach, added Commission Chair Steve Goldman. 

One of a kind Subway Beach Cafe exterior

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

A rendering of the proposed exterior and signage of Subway Beach Café

Caron also covered how the application relates to the city’s pending update of the Downtown Specific Plan. On January 25, council approved the first reading of a revision to the DSP. The updated DSP is scheduled for a second reading on February 15.

Under the new plan, the Subway Beach Café project would still require a conditional use permit, but only for the formula-based business component and not the fast casual or takeout operational component as those would be permitted by right, Caron explained. 

“Overall, similar findings would be required to approve a business like this under the new Downtown Specific Plan,” she said. “With this in mind, staff believes that approving this formula-based business would not set an undesired precedent for the future because the applicant has taken care in creating a one-of-a-kind business location with a unique presentation that avoids a formulaic appearance and sets a high bar for other potential formula-based business applications in the future.”

“This is a very interesting case because it really walks the line very tenuously through the existing policy and with the context of future policy kind of in the background,” Kellenberg said, echoing a public speaker’s comments. “We need to be looking at this through the lens of our current policy not something in the future.”

The applicant has worked hard to fit within that guideline, he added, and Subway fills a niche and provides an important service. But he would like to see more Laguna exclusive sandwiches to really differentiate the menu from other Subway Café locations. 

“I do think that would help solidify what we’re doing here as a precedent,” Commissioner Steven Kellenberg said. “I think we are going to get, in the future, a number of these applications and we have to be careful about the bar that we set.”

Answering a question about the percentage of Laguna exclusive sandwiches on the menu, Riscalla said if it’s pushed too far it becomes difficult to run a business. There are typically around 30-40 sandwiches on the regular menu, he said, and he plans to add about 10 items exclusive to Laguna. If it’s too restricted, like regulating the exact menu items, it becomes difficult to adapt for customer preferences. 

There’s a high degree of subjectivity in whether something meets the test of unique or formula-based, Goldman said. 

“At a high level, the applicant here is doing things that are unique for Laguna, that are unique for Subway,” Goldman said, “but, at the end of the day, let’s not kid ourselves, whether it’s 25% of the menu or 36.275% different on the menu, it’s still a Subway.”

But looking at the intent, the applicant is bending over backwards to make this different enough from other Subways so that it’s unique to Laguna, Goldman added. 

“He is complying with the spirit of the law as it currently works,” he said. 

They have to be fair and consistent in applying the policy, he said, agreeing with a point made by a public speaker. And in this case, it’s unique enough to make the findings to comply with the current DSP.

They also have to consider how it helps the greater good, benefits the community, or fills an unmet need, Goldman said.

The restaurant will add important value to the downtown, Riscalla said. Local artists can have their art displayed, workers can telecommute using the free Wi-Fi and the live music will add to the casual environment, he noted. 

“We are offering an economic option for the workers and students the folks that can’t go to an expensive restaurant to have a meal,” he said. “That would make this place a popular destination.”

Again, commissioners discussed the possibility of this project setting a precedent for future applications for formula-based businesses.

The applicant has bent over backwards to create something very different from the formula-based business, Dubin said. If, going forward, they are presented with this type of application again within the DSP, they need to be clear in what they are asking of the applicant, he added. 

“We’re not setting a loose standard for this type of stuff,” Dubin said. “And that we do have enough firewalls and policies in place that will govern this and future franchise-type businesses. If corporate isn’t amenable to these standards, then we will have a leg to stand on in terms of denying future applications.”

There were a handful of public speakers, most in support of the Subway Beach Café project. Several agreed that it’s an unfulfilled need in the downtown area.

There’s currently no restaurant in the downtown where someone can get an affordable sandwich and go to the beach, which is the “perfect beach food,” commented one speaker.

There were also some concerns raised by speakers, including equally applying the current DSP to all applicants. Even though the new, updated policy is likely coming, it’s not adopted yet, Karen Martin pointed out. 

There were also some concerns about parking, using compostable wrappers, and ensuring that the sidewalks and trash are cleaned up.

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

 

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