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Originally published March 29, 2012 at 8:09 PM | Page modified March 30, 2012 at 7:52 AM

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Food fight at Sea-Tac 'a bunch of bologna'?

A Seattle Port Commission meeting about whether to allow McDonald's to lease space at Sea-Tac Airport grew into a discussion about labor policies, healthful food, local businesses and social justice.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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If this article had come out on April 1, I would have honestly thought it was a joke... MORE
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Port of Seattle Commissioner John Creighton doesn't eat a lot of fast food. He's on a diet! He already lost 15 pounds.

But he made this admission at a recent Port Commission meeting: "When I do eat fast food, I'm very partial to McDonald's Chicken McNuggets."

Creighton's confession came in the middle of a debate about allowing two new restaurants at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport: local specialty cheese purveyor Beecher's Handmade Cheese and international fast-food giant McDonald's.

Beecher's sailed through.

Port staff called it "an iconic Pike Place Market favorite" that will cater to Seattle's foodie culture. Commissioner Gael Tarleton cooed that the Beecher's application was "one of the best pieces of marketing material" she had ever seen. Beecher's is expected to open in September on the C Concourse, near the Massage Bar.

The McDonald's application was tabled indefinitely.

Commissioners in 2015 plan to set up a whole new structure for choosing airport tenants. Letting McDonald's in early means it wouldn't be subject to proposed new rules about minority-owned businesses and a unionized workforce.

Of course, that's true of Beecher's, as well.

The March 6 meeting unfolded with the absurdist flavor of an episode of "Portlandia," as commissioners discussed not only the merits of the Port's vision for airport concessions and union policies, but also the merits of cheese.

Creighton said he loves cheese, and had plans later in the month to attend a cheese festival in Sonoma, Calif.

At one point, an exasperated Commissioner Tom Albro threw his hands in the air. "Cheese is good stuff, but it's not good for ya, either," he said.

Commissioner Rob Holland said the McDonald's proposal ignored his "social-justice concerns" — namely that the Port should be working harder to attract women- and minority-owned businesses.

The Beecher's proposal did, too, he said, but Beechers is a beloved local business. "I think if we were talking about Kidd Valley or Dick's, honestly, I think the conversation would have been different," Holland said.

There are 48 restaurants at the airport, including coffee shops, local businesses such as the Alki Bakery, and large national chains.

As a business deal, the McDonald's proposal seems like a good one. The new restaurant would fill an undesirable space near the children's play area that's been vacant since China First left in 2005, according to Port staff.

McDonald's would make $2 million in needed improvements to the space, and over the life of its 12-year lease, the Port is expected to earn $5 million.

It also solves the airport's longstanding "hamburger problem," said Deanna Zachrisson, the Port concessions business manager. Travelers complain all the time that they can't get a Big Mac at the airport. The Wendy's in the central terminal does such swift business, Zachrisson said, that they "literally can't flip any more burgers in that space." There is a Burger King in the north satellite.

Anticipating commissioners' values of maintaining a Northwest feel at the airport and promoting local products, McDonald's agreed to paint its restaurant an approved "deep red" color instead of the "plasticky red" it sometimes uses. The application points out that the local franchisee runs his business from his home in nearby Normandy Park and sources 70 percent of his food from Washington.

"What's so wrong with offering the traveling public a brand that they've come to rely on?" asked Albro, who throughout the meeting referred to the cheese company as "Beechner's."

"I don't particularly frequent McDonald's," he said. "We've taken up one as being good and one as being bad, and I don't particularly buy that. I think that's a bunch of bologna."

In the end, the commissioners delayed the McDonald's vote indefinitely and decided to have a "round-table" to discuss concessions policies.

Because the only thing people in Seattle love even more than handmade cheese? Another meeting.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.

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