"I think -- pardon the expression -- that it's a foul charge. ... It seems like they're ... trying to cage us."
-- Picnics co-owner Ron Smith
Jason Martin first played The Chicken 10 years ago, when he was still a student at UNCA. Since then, a handful of others have taken on the role, walking back and forth in front of Picnics Restaurant & Bake Shop in full chicken regalia as time and customer flow permitted.
A year ago, Martin found his way back to the job. He was good at it, after all. He strutted. He flapped. He danced. Some drivers waved as they passed by the business at 371 Merrimon Ave.; others seemed indifferent his antics.
But the city of Asheville was not. Development Planning Specialist Christine Logan, who oversees sign compliance, said she happened to be driving by the restaurant in early October and saw Martin outside, in costume. Picnics, she says, was told nearly a year ago that The Chicken (who at that time carried a signboard advertising specials) was in violation of the UDO, but she decided to stop in and give the business another warning.
According to Logan, the rambling, oversized fowl flies in the face of section 7, article 13 of Asheville's Unified Development Ordinance, which expressly forbids "portable or movable display signs."
Martin, however, isn't happy about it. "I'm not a sign -- I'm a person," he said last week. "I can sit here and reason with you. I can walk around in front of the restaurant and know when to step aside to let someone park. I can interact with customers: I can greet them, I can hold the door open for them. To say that I'm a sign is an insult to me. I'm more than just an advertisement."
Meanwhile, the city has seemed less concerned about other apparently noncompliant signs. Logan says her office has only two active enforcement officials, making it difficult to find all violators among the city's roughly 9,200 businesses. Whatever the reasons, concerned city residents have called attention to a number of seemingly blatant violations of the sign regulations.
The electronic message board outside the A.G. Edwards & Sons office at 190 Biltmore Ave., for example, appears to violate the UDO's prohibition of "animated signs and flashing signs." Logan said the business was granted a variance for the sign, noting, "A variance can be applied for at any time." Yet the UDO makes it clear that "The Board of Adjustment shall not have the authority to grant variances so as to allow prohibited signs to be installed."
The city also approved a sign at Prudential Lifestyle Realty's offices at 31 College Place, just off Interstate 240; the sign on the building's east side violates the ordinance's size restrictions. The city later admitted the mistake.
"[Prudential has] applied for a permit to place a conforming side on the south facade of the building and remove the sign that's in violation," said Asheville Planning Director Scott Shuford. "They haven't started that work yet, but they indicated that they would begin this week or next."
And some Asheville residents made a considerable flap last winter about the sign that lines the parapet at Staples at 65 Merrimon Ave.
Asked about where things stand with Staples, City Attorney Bob Oast said: "I wrote Staples a letter about a month ago. There may have been some reply, but I'm not aware of it. That was my last communication."
According to Martin, The Chicken's value to Picnics lies partly in "branding," something many small businesses are at pains to achieve. While most Americans have little trouble spotting a McDonald's or a Burger King at 50 paces, single-location businesses don't generally have the same drawing power.
"This isn't Chili's; it's not Applebee's. It's not even Urban Burrito, which is a local business but is a chain," explained Martin. "We don't have the luxury of having a big van with our logo on it that we can park outside, strategically placed."
Picnics, which opened in 1995, trades on its mom-and-pop atmosphere. Its weekly print ads show Minnie Smith, who co-owns the business with her son Ron Smith, holding up one of her trademark pies. A mantel inside the restaurant is bedecked with pictures of Smith's family and pets. Home-cooked baked goods are everywhere, and jars of batch-made preserves and sauces line the shelves.
Wearing a clown's nose for Halloween, Ron Smith recalled what first attracted him to the city. He fears that The Chicken crackdown may be a death knell for what he calls the "old, funky Asheville," part of a larger attempt by the city to "clean up its act" to please a wealthier clientele that has only recently discovered the place.
"Part of why we came here from Miami, part of the allure of Asheville, was the openness, the funkiness, the welcoming atmosphere. If the city limits our ability to welcome people and promote ourselves, there won't be a place for small businesses here. I think -- pardon the expression -- that it's a foul charge. To me, it's an issue of rights. It seems like they're just dropping gates down on us left and right, like they're trying to cage us."
As Smith sliced pies and dressed them with whipped cream, Martin -- in costume but sans mask -- was serving customers nearby. Despite being confined to quarters, his mood was expansive. He addressed the women and men lining up at the hot bar as "ma'am" and "sir." He seemed to know many of them. One asked him about the dark glasses he was wearing.
"You can take the chicken off the street, but you can't take the street out of the chicken," said Martin. He smiled broadly and spooned up some Brunswick stew for the man.