CLEVELAND—Every day, 38-year-old Susan Tarsley takes a brisk walk through her tree-lined neighborhood. At each turn, she is reminded of the changes brought on by the march of progress: a TV antenna dismantled to make way for underground cable, passersby chatting on cell phones, a rusty tricycle abandoned for a Razor scooter.
But at the silent corner of Lark Street and Superior Avenue, Tarsley stops to mourn the passing of an especially treasured landmark. Her local Burger King is fading into memory. It's a sadly familiar picture in many communities: Fast-food hubs that once bustled with activity, when young and old alike gathered in plastic molded seats around gleaming yellow linoleum tables, are now boarded-up ghost restaurants. Their long-extinguished drive-through menus silently beckon to cars that will never come.
"I came here as a child when it first opened," said Tarsley, strolling through the empty, weed-strewn parking lot. "Now that I have kids, where are they supposed to go for Whoppers or Chicken Tenders? We need to ask ourselves, as a culture, 'Where are our priorities?'"
Once nearly as plentiful as McDonald's, Burger Kings are quickly becoming the fast-food franchise of a bygone era. A 2004 survey of fast-food diners showed that nearly 60 percent did not live within walking distance of a Burger King. Another 20 percent had to drive to a nearby town just to see one.
Although the Lark Street store closed its doors last November, not all communities are giving up their Burger Kings without a fight.
In Seattle, volunteer canvassers went door-to-door, collecting signatures to save the Burger King on Rainier Avenue. As a result of their efforts, Mayor Greg Nickels granted the store historic-landmark status.
"There are children alive today who don't know what a Whaler is," the mayor said at the signing ceremony. "All their lives, they've known only the McDonald's Filet-O-Fish. If you look into the eyes of such a child, you realize why it's important that we save our shared Burger King heritage."
In Phoenix, mother of two Gloria Poenig organized a community-action BK Broiler-buying group to help raise awareness of the fast-food chain's plight.
"Most people don't even know that our Burger Kings are in trouble, or they say they're too busy to help," Poenig said. "People don't realize that every time a Burger King closes, a little piece of America dies."
Although isolated heroes have saved some Burger Kings from the bulldozer, the problems of maintaining the franchises persist. With an 8 percent decline in patronage since 2002, the chains are plagued by vandalism, high employee turnover, and disappointing sales of french-toast sticks.
For those at the forefront of the battle to save their Burger Kings, the issue is not saving the brick-and-mortar buildings, but embracing the Burger King philosophy.
Steve Quislen, a Chicago-based civil rights and labor lawyer, has been doing pro-bono work on behalf of Burger King for 12 years. Members of his group, Coalition To Save Our Franchise Landmarks, meet every Sunday at the Bedford Street Burger King, where they don the cardboard crown of the Burger King Kids Club, eat Bacon Double Cheeseburgers, and enjoy what may soon become a lost way of life.
"We need to stand up and be counted before the things that make our society great—like Burger King's new Enormous Omelet Sandwich—vanish forever," Quislen said.
Despite the efforts of thousands of dedicated Burger King activists like Quislen, even die-hard believers like Tarsley say they are losing faith.
"Whenever I drive by a strip mall or new shopping district without a Burger King in it, I can't help but shed a tear," Tarsley said. "It is truly a sad reminder of inevitable change and decline."
As she began the walk back home from Lark Street's once-proud "Home Of The Whopper," Tarsley resolved to do everything in her power to preserve this hallowed source of budget meals, for her children, and her children's children.
"I won't throw in the towel until the last Burger King is gone," Tarsley said. "I will fight this fight wherever it is being fought, whether it's on the airwaves, the national news, or in the parking lots of the restaurants themselves. I will not let Burger King go the way of Sambo's and Kenny Rogers Roasters."