August 30, 2018

Houston Chronicle: McDonald’s at Ben Taub will not reopen after Harvey

By Jenny Deam for the Houston Chronicle.

What years of outrage, picket lines and billboard campaigns failed to do, a storm named Harvey accomplished with one burst pipe and a foot of floodwater.

The McDonald’s restaurant in the basement of Ben Taub Hospital was closed after the storm and now, nearly a year later, the company has decided not to reopen it, in either its previous location or the immediate vicinity, a spokesman for the fast-food giant said Friday.

All traces of the Golden Arches are now gone from the hospital basement where the restaurant was a fixture for nearly 16 years. An alternate location was offered in the hospital’s adjacent tower but the restaurant chain has decided to pass, McDonald’s spokesman Chris Stanley said.

“It was not going to be as good for business,” he said, adding that the franchise owner at the basement location has not decided whether to open elsewhere in the Texas Medical Center.

The presence of McDonald’s at Ben Taub had become a flash point of protest by those who said the menu — often laden with fat, salt and sugar — had no place at a health-care facility. On Friday, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, declared victory.

“If they’ve closed a McDonald’s it’s a win,” said Leslie Rudloff, director of legal affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for nutrition and preventative medicine.

The national nonprofit alliance of 12,000 doctors was behind shaming campaigns against not only Harris Health System, which operates Ben Taub, but also other hospitals across the country that allow fast-food restaurants in their buildings.

“You go upstairs and meet with a cardiologist who says you need to lower your fat intake, your sodium, your cholesterol. And then on the way out the door you can grab a Big Mac,” Rudloff said.

Bryan McLeod, a spokesman for Harris Health System, said the fast-food outlet was on its way out even before the storm hit. Harvey just sealed the deal.

The Harris County Hospital District Foundation entered into a 10-year lease agreement with McDonald’s that ended in 2012 but came with an option to extend the arrangement in five-year increments. The first extension was expiring in September 2017 and was not going to be renewed, McLeod said. The company was given a 90-day notice the prior June.

Stanley said Harris Health and McDonald’s were still in “conversation” when the storm hit. Neither he nor McLeod could offer any insight into the negotiation, but it quickly became moot.

In the early hours of Aug. 27, as Harvey pummeled the Texas Medical Center, a pipe burst in the Ben Taub basement, swamping it with floodwater. Not only was the damaged McDonald’s closed, but so was the cafeteria. After the cleanup, a massive, previously scheduled plumbing repair was undertaken unrelated to the storm.

In May, the cafeteria reopened but the McDonald’s was gone.

McLeod said the decision to not extend the lease agreement was due to the security concerns of having a public restaurant with easy access to the hospital.

It is not clear when those concerns surfaced. In two separate interviews with the Chronicle in 2016, executives with the health system lauded the McDonald’s connection, calling it a money-maker for the foundation as well as a source of comfort and familiarity for patients and their families.

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