McDonald’s parking policy induces friction

Brian Close

Inside McDonald’s at lunchtime, Happy Meals sizzle on the griddle. Outside the Dinkytown haven, a tow truck sits around the corner, patiently waiting for someone to break the parking rules.
And it would be hard to miss the rules in the McDonald’s lot. Fifteen signs posted all around the lot warn everyone parking there to remain on the premises.
The restaurant’s policy is a point of contention with many University students who complain that it is too strict. Many also criticize the speed and methods with which Cedar Towing clears their cars.
But McDonald’s owner David Choate said he loses money when his customers can’t park or when excess cars give potential patrons the impression there will be lines inside the restaurant.
Choate also said he makes no money from the tows. A Minneapolis city ordinance prohibits lot owners from receiving any kickbacks from their towing contractor.
“The last thing in the world I want to do is tow someone’s car,” he said. “It will cost me a customer.”
Choate said it is important that McDonald’s has enough spaces for customers, especially during the lunch rush. However, some students complain that they intended to buy McDonald’s, but left the premises for various reasons.
Nancy Christenson-Schalow parked in McDonald’s lot at lunchtime in April. She says she frequently buys McDonald’s for her son and Subway for herself.
Seeing a line at McDonald’s, she went to Subway first. She said she was away from her car for four minutes.
Christenson-Schalow said when she saw a Cedar Towing driver hooking up her car, she ran to stop him. She was intercepted by the lot attendant, a McDonald’s employee watching for parking violators.
While the lot manager talked with her, she said, the driver continued hooking up the car.
“He just acted like I wasn’t saying a word, and kept on hooking up the car,” she said.
She said after the car was finally lifted, the McDonald’s manager called the police about Christenson-Schalow, who was protesting loudly and sitting in the car while the driver was lifting it.
When four Minneapolis police officers arrived, they repeated the driver’s position, and told Christenson-Schalow to pay the $50 “drop fee.” A Minneapolis city ordinance states the fee can be charged only if the car’s wheels are off the ground when the owner arrives.
After bystander Lynette Engebretson gave her the $50, Christenson-Schalow went through the drive-thru to illustrate her intent to purchase McDonald’s, in preparation for a possible lawsuit.
Choate then returned her money, telling her the manager recognized her as a customer from previous visits.
“Why would McDonald’s do that to the customer when there were 20 spaces open?” she asked.
“If a customer is driving by the restaurant and the lot looks full, they will simply drive by,” replied Choate.
Cedar Towing officials said the truck already had the car off the ground when Christenson-Schalow arrived.
But Engebretson, whose car was parked next to Christenson-Schalow’s, said not only was Christenson-Schalow’s car still on the ground, but the driver was very rude.
“I stayed in my car; I didn’t get involved until I heard them lying to her,” she said. “I was amazed that he spoke to her the way he did.”
Tom Rodrigue, who owns Cedar Towing with his wife Julie, explained the towing procedure. Once the lot manager has determined the car owner is not on the premises, he calls Cedar.
Then Cedar, which often has a tow truck around the corner during the lunch rush, moves in and puts the car on the truck after the lot manager signs the authorization form. If the car owner comes before the car is lifted, he said the car is released for no charge, as the city requires.
He said Cedar has put up 10 times more signs than the city requires to make sure the rules are noticed, but some people ignore the signs.
Peter Kane, a University employee, also expressed frustration at McDonald’s for its policy. He said that when he needed to buy food for several people, he also parked in McDonalds’ lot and went to Subway.
“I was looking at my watch because I dreaded getting towed,” he said.
Kane said after four minutes, he came out into the lot and his car was up on the truck.
Kane said the experience soured him on McDonald’s.
“It enflames me that they can do that when the only reason they’re on that corner is because of us at the University,” he said. “It’s almost a personal insult to somebody to lose their car in the middle of Dinkytown.”
Choate said most students are aware of the policy. They account for less than 15 percent of the tows from his lot.
He said he asked Rodrigue to keep a truck nearby during the lunch rush to shorten the time it takes to free the spaces.
Choate said he doesn’t mind if students study at McDonald’s and only drink a cup of coffee. All he asks, he said, is that drivers don’t leave the premises.
“During the hours of 10:30 to 2:00 we need every one of our parking places,” he said. “If I didn’t tow, people would park there and run errands in Dinkytown.”