There’s a right way and a wrong way to make biscuits. Too much water will make them flat and chewy. Fold the dough improperly and they’ll come out lopsided. The perfect biscuit is golden-brown and crisp on the outside, soft and moist (but not gummy) on the inside, standing at 1.75 inches in height and 3.25 inches in diameter. At least, that’s according to Chick-fil-A’s “Biscuit Troubleshooting Guide,” prominently on display in the kitchen of its massive new restaurant in the heart of New York City.
The Atlanta-based fast food chain is making its first serious foray into America’s most competitive food market Saturday, when a three-story, 5,000-square-foot Chick-fil-A opens near Herald Square in midtown Manhattan. The new store will be the first free-standing Chick-fil-A in the city, and the company’s largest restaurant ever.
“We’ve had people begging us to come to the city for a long time,” says Ryan Holmes, Chick-fil-A’s urban strategy consultant. The company has built a hand-breaded empire in the Deep South, where its chicken sandwiches, waffle fries and sweet tea are a suburban staple. Chick-fil-A pulled in more than $5.7 billion in total sales last year, according to food industry tracker Technomic. This year the chain expects to grow by another $1 billion. The company is breaking its own sales records by aggressively opening new restaurants (about two per week) while increasing volume at existing locations. Chick-fil-A surpassed KFC to become the biggest chicken fast food chain in the U.S. in 2013, all while operating less than half the number of stores. That’s without the benefit of being open on Sundays, when all Chick-fil-A restaurants close in a nod to the company’s Christian roots.
There are many reasons for Chick-fil-A’s ascension. Thanks to a focus on customer service, it’s carved out an image as being a cut above fast food giants like McDonald’s and Burger King, but it’s still cheaper than the “fast-casual” restaurants that have struck gold with health-conscious consumers, like Chipotle and Panera Bread. Chicken sandwiches are currently en vogue, with everyone from burger joint Shake Shack to celebrity chef David Chang putting their own spin on Chick-fil-A’s signature entree. And the simplicity of the company’s menu—nearly every item revolves around either breaded or grilled chicken—appeals greatly to consumers.
“Their store format and their menu offerings actually are very ahead of the curve,” says Andrew Alvarez, an industry research analyst for IBISWorld. “They have a very core focus. They make it very well [and] they make it consistent across the board.”
Having conquered the South, the company is now setting its sights on the rest of the nation. The New York location is the flagship effort of that battle plan. The restaurant is tailored to appeal to ambling tourists and harried Midtown workers alike. On the ground floor, which features the ordering area and the main kitchen, eight employees equipped with iPads will take customers’ orders as they wait in line, helping to get people in and out the door within minutes. Upstairs, the restaurant will seat about 80 people in a clean, modern space typical of fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle or one of McDonald’s newly refreshed locations. In the basement, a second kitchen is used for preparation of certain foods, like those carefully crafted biscuits, and cooking up catering orders.
Despite the lavish digs and undeniably tasty food (the chain regularly tops customer satisfaction lists), Chick-fil-A will face serious challenges in Manhattan. Other big fast food chains, like Qdoba Mexican Grill, have tried there and failed. The chicken chain’s free-standing stores typically do at least 60% of their business via drive-through orders, but the Big Apple restaurant located just blocks from Times Square will have to rely solely on in-store orders.
Meanwhile, the company is still facing fallout from controversial comments CEO Dan Cathy made about same-sex marriage in 2012. The divisive comments led equal rights activists to boycott the chain, while gay marriage opponents lined up to buy its chicken sandwiches in a show of support for Cathy. Three years later, many people haven’t forgotten about the incident. Plans to open a Chick-fil-A at Denver International Airport stalled this summer because city council members were worried the company would use the profits to “fuel discrimination.” The location was eventually approved.
“There will be plenty of people who just don’t necessarily want to give them any business,” says Elizabeth Friend, an analyst for Euromonitor. “People want the brands they go to to reflect who they are. In a place like New York, where it’s particularly progressive, particularly diverse, that’s going to be a difficult climate for a chain that has had that kind of issue in the past.”
Cathy later said the company would refrain from engaging in political debates any further. Chick-fil-A was noticeably silent earlier this year when a Supreme Court decision legalized gay marriage nationwide. The company’s goal now is to win over northerners whose only prior interaction with the brand may have left a bad taste in their mouths.
“If you’re in a market like New York and all you know about Chick-fil-A is what you’ve read, you may have one perception,” says David Farmer, the company’s vice president for menu strategy and development. “We want to demonstrate to folks that we’re not against anybody. You can say that, but you’ve got to prove that. We consider it an honor to serve you. We’re hoping we get to do that, even with folks that are skeptics.”
Still, analysts believe Chick-fil-A has a good chance of finding its footing in the Big Apple. A second location near Rockefeller Center is slated to open early in 2016, and the company is scouting potential locations for other outposts in Manhattan as well as the city’s outer boroughs. It’s also eyeing New England for further expansion efforts.
“They have been one of the only fast food chains that’s really been seeing consistent growth recently,” says Friend. “There’s definitely demand for what they’re offering.”