Chick-fil-A will find mega success in NYC (whether you like it or not)

October 2, 2015, 8:45 PM UTC

For New Yorkers, it’s been impossible to avoid hearing about Chick-fil-A’s new restaurant location in midtown Manhattan, opening its doors to the hungry public on Saturday morning. For people in other parts of the country, new Chick-fil-A openings are hardly newsworthy. But make no mistake: Chick-fil-A’s entry into the heart of New York City is a bold business move that has been long in the making and is not without major controversy.

The new location, at 37th Street and Sixth Avenue, is not in fact the first in Manhattan—there is a small Chick-fil-A counter inside a New York University campus building that offers a limited menu and opened in 2004. But the Midtown location is the chicken chain’s first full foray into New York City. And for a gambit in the country’s most competitive dining market, more of everything—more space, more staff, more technology—is required.

The 5,000-square-foot location is the first of the chain’s 1,900+ locations to have three levels, and the first to have two separate kitchens. It is the largest Chick-fil-A in the country—an impressive feat in a city where real estate space isn’t exactly easy to find. On the basement level, employees (the chain calls them “team members”) roll biscuit dough and chop up salads by hand. The third level has a dining room that seats 82 people.

On the ground level, where customers order, Chick-fil-A is so sure of long, snaking lines that five employees will flitter around the line, taking orders on iPads so the food is ready when you reach the counter to pay. Ryan Holmes, Chick-fil-A’s urban strategy consultant, boasts that average wait times were between 4 and 6 minutes when the chain first tried this ordering method in Chicago stores. He says the New York City team members have even been briefed to approach customers differently than anywhere else: to be polite but fast with business customers who need to grab food and go—this is New York, after all—and to be warmer and welcoming to tourists that need more time with the menu. “We’re still getting to know this city,” says Holmes. “We can play it by ear, we may even stay open later than planned to suit people.”

For many potential customers, none of that effort matters. It is overshadowed by a lingering controversy from three summers ago, when Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy, son of founder Truett Cathy, went on a radio show and said the company does not support same-sex marriage. “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,'” he said. “We are very much supportive of… the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives.” The statements created a firestorm that, on the liberal East Coast where Chick-fil-A would like to grow, has never gone away.

Monica Sexton, an account executive in the fashion industry, works just a few blocks away from the new location; because of Cathy’s remarks in 2012, she will not be eating at the restaurant. “Just like I won’t ever frequent Hobby Lobby ever again,” she says. “Chick-fil-A doesn’t need my money, and I don’t need their chicken. There are plenty of other options out there and if they are going to express those views, I won’t eat there. I know my husband feels the same way. I have friends that feel similarly, but I don’t know if there are enough of us that it will make a big impact.”

Sexton is right—the hue and cry is unlikely to bring down business. The public’s memory is short, though this particular scandal has dogged the chain for three years. Still, it’s one thing not to eat at a restaurant—might critics choose to actively protest it? “I wouldn’t go as far as to picket the place,” says Sexton. “If there are people that it doesn’t bother, let them eat there.”

They will. And, possible protests or not, Chick-fil-A executives don’t appear too worried about the critics. (Sales grew to $5.8 billion last year, and average sales-per-location were higher than at McDonald’s.) In fact, the chain is so confident New Yorkers will love its food that it has already begun construction on a second Manhattan location, just a few blocks up the street at 46th and Sixth Avenue.

The two New York locations are the proving grounds for a much larger East Coast expansion. Just how big of a turnout will there be to the new restaurant in its first couple of weeks? “Nobody really knows,” says vice president of menu strategy David Farmer, “but we think we could do twice here what we did in Seattle, and that was our biggest opening ever.” Farmer says the preparation to open this restaurant has been “more than anything I’ve ever seen us do. This is the big stage, and we don’t want to show up and not execute.”

The timing of Chick-fil-A’s Manhattan move is not accidental. There is a chicken-sandwich explosion happening here: this summer, Shake Shack (SHAK) launched a chicken sandwich, the Chicken Shack; Momofuku, an Asian restaurant mini-empire that began with a simple noodle bar in Manhattan’s East Village, opened two chicken-sandwich locations on the island called Fuku and Fuku Plus.

Chick-fil-A (which recently launched a healthier grilled chicken option, as well as new cold-brew coffee) has noticed the trend. “I think there’s been a chicken-sandwich groundswell at a lower level already,” he says, “but now you’re seeing high food come to fast food. You see Danny Meyer doing it, you see David Chang, there’s another fellow, a James Beard Award-nominated chef in Seattle, Kevin Gillespie, and he’s got a recipe he calls his Closed on Sunday Chicken Sandwich. So we’re seeing these guys with really strong culinary backgrounds, and they’re recognizing people love this and want this.”

Farmer acknowledges that Chick-fil-A is more accustomed to opening free-standing locations that have a drive-through. At locations with a drive-through, an average 60% of sales come from eaters in their cars. No such luxury exists in the middle of Manhattan, so the iPad-ordering, he says, “will function like a drive-through and up-stream customers quickly that way.”

He hopes so. But in the first few weeks, even if only because of the novelty of the new, expect long lines and a packed, hectic street corner at 37th and Sixth. And then, not long after that, expect the same to occur at 46th and Sixth. Chick-fil-A will hope to keep up the expansion, even on the coast where its reputation, for now, is still less than sterling.

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