Evolutionary experience: Rule-fighting Arby's becomes A Patriot's Place
Forest Lakes Arby’s owner Tom Slonaker has never been shy about promoting his business while expressing his libertarian beliefs, a tendency that's got him in some hot water with County officials over the years, and those beliefs appear to have helped create a new restaurant concept.
Slonaker has repeatedly defied a County zoning ordinance prohibiting commercial flags (an ordinance that has been in place since 1969) by hoisting an Arby's flag in front of his restaurant, along with signs for another business he owns. In 2003, Slonaker even hosted a "rally around the flag" event by handing out little Arby's flags for people to put on their cars, and portraying the situation as a property rights issue.
Later, he claimed the sign ordinance was enforced unevenly against businesses along 29 North, and he filed a civil suit against the county with the help of the Rutherford Institute, which argued that Slonaker's First Amendment rights were being trampled on.
Last year, however, a judge ruled that Slonaker had violated the sign ordinance and slapped him with $1,000 fines for several violations.
Meanwhile, Slonaker has also been having issues with Arby's corporate rules, which have not allowed him to
add his own menu items. Specifically, he's wanted to add soft-serve ice cream and "pressure cooked chicken," which he describes as "fried chicken without all the grease."
"People rave about it," he says. "We've invested quite alot in the equipment."
So, after 11 years as an Arby's franchise, Slonaker says he cut ties with the company and has yanked the Arby's logos off the side of the building. Indeed, almost overnight, the restaurant looked like a polling place around the time of Election Day. Slonaker had covered the roadside Arby's signs with white banners encouraging people to vote, put up American flags everywhere, and renamed the restaurant A Patriot's Place.
"This country, this town is so divided," says Slonaker in a distinctive radio announcer's voice. "I hope this new concept conveys to people that we have to come together to fix the problems of this country."
Slonaker says he hopes people can come to Patriot's Place to eat good American food and learn about the words and the ideals of the founding fathers. He's calling it a "revolutionary" experience.
Indeed, before the election Slonaker hosted a town hall meeting at his Arby's between eventually defeated Rep. Tom Perriello and local Tea Party activists.
"I've known Tom since he was a little boy," says Slonaker. "And I knew his father, Dr. Vito Perriello. I have a lot of admiration for him."
Slonaker points to the Perriello town hall meeting as the kind of thing he hopes A Patriot's Place will help promote, in which opposing groups can come together to work out their differences.
However, the success of the concept may also depend on the economy, which Slonaker admits has been rough on the business. Development and allegedly overburdensome county regulations haven't helped either, he says.
As Slonaker mentions, his Arby's was unique in that part of town a decade ago, but it had become just one of many fast food restaurants in the area.
"If I'm going to lose money," he says, "I might as well do it on my own terms."