At 12:45 on a Tuesday afternoon, the line for New York City’s first full-fledged Chick-fil-A stretches down 37th Street, far from the corner on which the store sits, until 6th Avenue is a rumor in the distance. When this location opened a month ago, after years of abortive attempts and fan exhortations, this line was the subject of multiple stories. Reporters marveled at people who would give up their day for a mid-priced fried chicken sandwich, and they seemed to be the same idle gawkers who’d lined up for the first Manhattan Dairy Queen last year, the first NYC Steak & Shake three years ago, and the first downtown IHOP four years ago. New Yorkers love a spectacle, after all.
But while the hype quickly died down around those other chains—that Dairy Queen now sits comfortably in the strip-mall sprawl of 14th Street, no busier than the Taco Bell a block away—the Chick-fil-A is still routinely packed 30-plus days after its launch. Which begs the question: what dark arts is this franchise channeling?
On the surface, this New York arrival seems like a case of lucky timing; there’s no question that 2015 is the Year of the Chicken Sandwich. Immediately upon opening in June, David Chang’s CFA-inspired Fuku sandwich quickly became the food world’s unlikeliest Instagram star, its wrinkled potato roll and unwieldy chicken overhang getting just as many ‘grams as the latest Yeezy release. In five quick months, Fuku has spawned a second, larger location and a celebrity collab with Mission Cantina. Meanwhile, a heavyweight competitor jointed the battle in Shake Shack’s ChickenShack (a limited offering that’s less CFA-worshiper, more buttermilk-dipped Southern charm). Popping up in the middle of New York’s feeding frenzy with the widely acknowledged chicken-sandwich OG—bargain-priced at just over half the cost of a Fuku sandwich—CFA looks like it’s stumbled into the middle of its own parade.
.@ChickfilA in New York: Long lines, quizzical looks: http://t.co/kJgGgkLxZv pic.twitter.com/JSrdXXe4KY
— WSB-TV (@wsbtv) October 6, 2015
CFA, however, has had a cult following for years. In 2008, McDonald’s was so threatened by the Georgia-based chain that it launched its own “Southern Style” sandwich, both in roll and biscuit form. (The blatant knock-off never took off, and was officially put out of its misery this summer.) A year later, Baked co-owner Matt Lewis was bemoaning the “thousands of otherwise perfectly sensible, self-aware foodies who fall all over themselves for Chick-fil-A.” In an increasingly health-focused, hyper-moralizing food environment that covers the spectrum from haute-cuisine dumpster diving, to Chipotle’s “all-natural” ethos, CFA is a rare old-fashioned fast-food company posting aggressive annual growth, up nearly 10% year-on-year (it’s predicted to be a nearly $7 billion business by the end of 2015). A major part of that growth strategy is targeting the Northeast—just up the I-95 corridor from CFA strongholds like Georgia and Florida—where brand recognition is high even among people who’ve never eaten at one before.
“Popping up in the middle of New York’s feeding frenzy with the widely acknowledged chicken-sandwich OG, CFA looks like it’s stumbled into the middle of its own parade.”
In the years since New Yorkers began hoping for our own CFA, the company has clearly been doing its homework. The location it settled on—a three-level, 5,000-square-foot former souvenir shop on the edge of the Garment District—is firmly in the epicenter of the Midtown food wasteland. At lunchtime, and again in the early evening, easily 70% of the customers in line are from the surrounding office buildings—key-card-wearing 9-to-5ers whose only other nearby choices are steam-table delis or that one Pret a Manger. Yes, there’s a line, but the 18 minutes it took from start to food on a recent trip is better than the lunchtime rush in any Manhattan Chop’t or Chipotle. To the work crowd, CFA isn’t a novelty or a special event: It’s a long-needed option for a quick #notsaddesklunch.
The rest of the visitors are equal parts tourist, NYU student, and fast-food groupie. Though it’s innately associated with the Southeast, CFA boasts locations in 39 states, meaning that most of the 44 million domestic tourists who came through NYC last year (and of the nearly 3,000 out-of-state members of the NYU freshman class) have one back home. And ludicrous or not, many tourists seek out some tiny comforts of home while traveling, especially the ones who go home to tell people that New York City “just isn’t for them.” That’s the reason there’s an Olive Garden in Times Square, and why this CFA, just a few blocks from the flagship Macy’s, is only going to get busier as the holiday season marches on.
“There’s no more market here to get verbally abused by the soup nazi for your lunch; what we want now is hand-holding, please-and-thank-you, pray-for-your-soul service, and we’re willing to compromise a few things to get it.”
Though protestors have been intermittently gathering outside the doors since the opening, it’s unlikely anything will slow CFA’s roll. Our Facebook-fueled hunger for photogenic good deeds has been fed by movements like #TipsforJesus, and there’s no denying that CFA’s Christian-love-fueled employee dedication fits the bill. For every Focus on the Family donation and reference to the supremacy of “biblical marriage” by chain CEO Dan Cathy (the chain is still ranked a 0 on Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index), there’s the 215-person pay-it-forward chain, the free sandwiches distributed to Atlanta blizzard victims, and the latest batch of individual locations sponsoring gay pride events. CFA is the Pope Francis of fast food—so warm and fuzzy that we’re ready to ignore the fundamental injustice it’s built upon.
It’s also easy to ignore those corporate injustices when you’re face-to-face with a service staff so friendly it’s confusing. Staff is everywhere in the New York CFA, and they all seem genuinely pleased to be doing whatever task they’re doing, whether it’s taking orders or throwing out your trash. A quick look in at the McDonald’s just a block and a half down Sixth Avenue was like staring into the depths of hell: cashiers shouted over the counter to try to wrangle the small horde that had formed instead of a line, and the crowd was decidedly more miserable, far less professional, and fluorescently lit. Instead of the franchise owner, a homeless man opened the door for us on our way out. For pure personal comfort, there’s no competition.
Chick-fil-A is the restaurant New York City needs in 2015—the one represented on the world stage by Taylor Swift and the kinder, gentler Gawker. It’s a city where fast-food workers effectively went on strike to win a living wage; where Danny Meyer is poised to kill the tipping economy once and for all; where the mayor gets roasted in controversies regarding topless women and tweets about baseball. There’s no more market here to get verbally abused by the soup nazi for your lunch. What we want now is hand-holding, please-and-thank-you, pray-for-your-soul service, and we’re willing to compromise a few things to get it.