Burger King promises you can have it your way. So when smoke and foul odors from the fast-food restaurant on Minstrel Way drifted through Columbia's Owen Brown village, neighbors asked for a change.
"It's like having 20 barbecues on at the same time in the neighborhood," said Bonnie Griffith, a 15-year resident, whose husband is a vegetarian. "It smells like grilled grease. It's gross."
After being cited by the state last month for a nuisance odor, the restaurant's owner installed a catalytic converter that cost $5,000. The restaurant is believed to be the first Burger King in Maryland with the device.
"The manufacturer says it will reduce smoke put off by the flame-broiling by 90 percent," said Thomas Herman, president of CR Restaurants Inc., the franchisee that operates the Burger King in the Owen Brown South Commercial Development. "It's virtually invisible."
Robert Burhenn, a resident who lives behind the restaurant and has complained about the smell for months, said, "We hope it works, I don't know what else we can do."
Known for its flame-grilled burgers, the nation's No. 2 burger chain broils its burgers over a charcoal fire that can produce smoke and odors that waft beyond the restaurant's doors.
On April 12, the state Department of the Environment hit the Owen Brown Burger King with an odor citation after following up on the complaints of at least three residents, said Cathy Singer, the registered sanitarian who investigated the complaint.
"It was enough that I thought it was offensive," said Singer.
On May 10, the Burger King's owner voluntarily installed the catalytic converter, manufactured by Nieco Corp., of Burlingame, Calif., which also makes the charbroilers.
"We anticipate being there for 20 years," said Herman, who noted that the restaurant was not required by the state to install the 2-foot by 2-foot unit, which acts like a catalytic converter on a car, filtering smoke. "We're not there to be anything but good citizens."
Restaurant smoke has been a controversial issue in some parts of the country, particularly in Southern California, which has severe pollution problems.
"Obviously, smoke is not good to inhale," said Bill Kelly, a spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which covers greater Los Angeles.
In 1994, a preliminary study by the district found that 19 tons of "volatile organic compounds" were produced daily by the 30,000 area restaurants using char-broilers or deep-vent fryers.
The restaurant industry contested the findings, saying the number was too high.
Three years ago, Nieco began selling the catalytic converters to help restaurants such as Burger King respond to complaints from neighbors about smoke, said Pat Baker, a Nieco marketing director.
There are 120 to 150 of the devices in the world, and just a handful on the East Coast, said Baker, none of them in Maryland before the Owen Brown restaurant.
In Owen Brown, where the Burger King has been open since August 1995, the absence of smoke has become apparent.
"Even from the inside, I can't see there's [any] smoke," said the restaurant's manager Arki Reid. "It helps a lot."
Residents hope the air remains clear.
"I like Burger King -- I don't like to smell it in my living room all day," said Griffith, the neighbor who lives a few hundred feet from the restaurant.
Pub Date: 5/28/96