Christian Young and Nengi Clement—two autistic Little Caesar's employees at the center of a sign ordinance dispute in Eagan—are in luck.
City staff hammered out an agreement earlier this week with Mike McGuire, the owner of the Little Caesar's in Eagan, that will allow the two young men to continue carrying signs, smiling and waving at passing motorists from a perch in the parking lot outside the business.
The restaurant came under scrutiny as early as April 2009 for stationing employees outside with t-shirts and hand-held signs to promote the Little Caesar's brand to drivers on Diffley Road, according to Eagan Communications Director Tom Garrison.
With the exception of billboards, city ordinances do not allow businesses to have "off-premise" signs—a rule that is designed to keep visual clutter at the minimum and improve roadway safety, Garrison said. And Clement and Young, sporting the Little Caesar's brand, fell under the auspices of that ordinance.
The city issued several warnings regarding the practice, Garrison said, and the employees were put on a temporary hiatus while McGuire and city officials discussed alternatives that would keep the two employed as promoters.
During that discussion, the city suggested the pair wear "I Love Pizza" t-shirts, rather than carrying signs or logos, Garrison said. The indirect advertising is protected under freedom of speech and would sidestep the city's sign ordinance, Garrison said.
"You could be dressed as a pizza slice, and that’s your freedom of expression to say anything you want," Garrison said. "We are able to regulate business signage, but we are not able to regulate free speech."
But after revisiting the rulebook, the city decided that the Little Caesar's parking lot, which is shared with other businesses in the strip mall development, is technically still a part of the business' property, Garrison said.
For that reason, Clement and Young can continue waving signs, as long as they stay out of the 20-foot-wide right-of-way along Diffley.
Garrison said the city was trying to take into account many conflicting viewpoints when it was pursuing enforcement action against Little Caesar's.
"We understand that businesses want to promote their business, and get people inside," Garrison said. "We have other folks who feel just as strongly that no, that’s not a good thing, and the closer you get to the road, the more dangerous it is for drivers."