Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.

Santa Cruz has your usual fast food chains: McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Jack in the Box, Burger King and now a Panda Express. And it may soon be welcoming another. Despite the city’s history of favoring local restaurants over chains, In-N-Out Burger is setting its sights on Surf City.

In-N-Out, the famed burger chain of the West Coast, could come to Santa Cruz, said Carl Van Fleet, vice president of planning and development.

“Our real estate team has been looking at Santa Cruz County for some time and we hope to be there in the not-too-distant future,” Van Fleet said in an e-mail to the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

But if In-N-Out were to come to Santa Cruz, it would have to jump through some hurdles regarding the city’s drive-through policy.

“By our Zoning Ordinance, the Downtown Recovery Plan, and the Mission Street Plan, drive-throughs are not allowed on Mission Street or in the downtown area,” Juliana Rebagliati, director of planning and community development of Santa Cruz, said in an e-mail. “They are allowed in other areas of town, such as Ocean Street, but there are many qualifying standards that serve to limit the number of locations where they may be built — such as they must be a certain distance away from a signaled intersection, they must be a certain distance away from an existing drive-through, et cetera.”

Is Santa Cruz becoming more and more open to chain restaurants and franchises?

On any given night, the new Panda Express near Safeway might have a line out the door. Since it opened Jan. 19, Panda is “doing OK,” manager Ken Chan said.

“We are meeting expectations,” Chan said. “They [our customers] are mostly locals, some students. We probably have stolen some [customers from other restaurants].”

Second-year student Charlene Tran said she is excited about the new Panda Express but even more excited about a possible In-N-Out.

“In-N-Out is the king of all fast-food restaurants,” Tran said. “It’s delicious, and they have the friendliest people.”

Founded in 1948, the chain now has over 250 restaurants across the West Coast, most of which are in California. Local business manager Seth Landig, of Betty Burgers on Seabright Avenue, is not too worried about the possibility of an In-N-Out.

“Any burger place would affect us, but we have a little different meat,” Landig said. “We’re not a fast-food place either, more of a restaurant. I mean, our burgers take 10 minutes to make.”

The limits on drive-throughs in Santa Cruz have been active for nearly 20 years and it might force In-N-Out to look at other nearby cities.

The search can be seen on Facebook, where Kurt Overmeyer, Watsonville city economic development manager, has set up a page to garner local support. Santa Cruz also has residents dedicated to bringing in an In-N-Out, and it looks like Santa Cruz is winning.

While “In-N-Out to Watsonville” currently has 3,180 fans, Santa Cruz’s “We Need an In-N-Out in Santa Cruz” Facebook page had over 9,000. In-N-Out vice president of planning and development Van Fleet said the use of social media would help the company’s decision.

“Community support is an important factor for us, and a Facebook site with numerous likers could be influential,” he wrote to the Sentinel.

Landig, manager of Betty Burgers, expressed confidence that local restaurants would still be competitive.

“We’ve always had some chains in Santa Cruz,” he said. “Some will come and go, but people who live in Santa Cruz will tend to frequent the local spots.”