SANTA BARBARA, California – Business has boomed for Chick-fil-A franchisee Travis Collins during the pandemic, thanks to the growing appetite for chicken sandwiches from his drive-through window.
Now he is working on controlling the queues of cars running out onto the surrounding streets. The city council of this affluent coastal town has proposed declaring his transit a public nuisance.
Neighbors and city officials say customers hungry enough to defy the crowded area of Chick-n-Strips or the signature chicken sandwich with pickles on a greased bun have caused so many traffic jams, bus delays and dangers on the city’s highway that anything must be finished.
“It’s against the law, they know it’s against the law, but their chicken burgers are more important to them,” said nearby resident Rick Closson. The retired pharmacist once spent a week outside Chick-fil-A counting the row of cars at 15-minute intervals and informing drivers who blocked the sidewalk that they were breaking the law. Drivers blew him off most of the time, he said, keeping their eyes trained on the line.
Mr. Collins, the franchisee, said he has doubled the number of employees to move lines faster, added overflow parking lots and hired guards to direct traffic.
“We regret that the traffic problem got to the point that it did,” he said. “We have worked with the city and the community to solve the problem once and for all.”
Many fast food outlets have encountered major transit lines after the pandemic closed dining rooms, leaving customers on guard against indoor spaces. The demand for fried comfort food also increased.
Companies in Toledo, Ohio, and Beaumont, Texas, have filed lawsuits against Chick-fil-A franchises because of the growing queues. In Township of Union, NJ, a judge ordered another Chick-fil-A place to temporarily close its drive-through, after a competing restaurant next door said its customers could not get around the line.
The food battle is particularly hot in the car-centric area of Southern California, which some fast food historians say is the birthplace of the modern drive-through experience.
In-N-Out, a cult brand with cult status, hails from Los Angeles County and is credited with popularizing the use of a two-way radio that allowed diners to order without leaving their cars. Today, on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles, it is common to see a line 30 vehicles deep that stretches through a nearby Strip Mall parking lot and down a residential street.
About 95 miles north of Santa Barbara, a foodie destination nicknamed the American Riviera, the city council spent nearly five hours in March grilling over the local Chick-fil-A drive-through. One resident said the traffic around it made the beach community “basically uninhabitable”, adding: “It’s almost like we’re in LA now.”
The mayor and another council member revealed that a resident had threatened them with a recall if they did not move to declare the driveway a nuisance.
Local Chick-fil-A supporters, including employees, working mothers and a recent college graduate, portrayed kerfuffle as a nothing burger, describing the restaurant as a supportive workplace and a cheap and easy meal option.
Josh Romero, a 25-year-old video producer and resident of Santa Barbara, testified to the council that he was a “Chick-fil-A expert” after eating there twice a week for the past five years.
“I think it’s a little funny that people are so bored,” said Mr. Romero on a recent Friday, shortly after placing his usual lunch order on four chicken strips, large french fries, a Dr. Pepper and various sauces from his car.
In a 14-page memorandum entitled “Traffic Conditions Associated with Chick-fil-A Queuing,” sent to city officials in January, Santa Barbara’s chief transportation engineer, Derrick Bailey, wrote that the passage narrowed traffic for an average of 70 minutes on weekdays and 92 minutes on Saturdays. Backup on the busiest day of the study period was 2½ hours.
City Councilman Eric Friedman said he had no idea when he was elected in 2017 that he would come up with so many Chick-fil-A traffic complaints. He said he receives a dozen comments a month on the issue and that he is often contacted by voters at Trader Joe’s, where he works part-time.
At the March hearing, a group of lawyers and Chick-fil-A business leaders flanked Mr. Collins, the local franchisee, in a virtual appearance. He pleaded with city officials to postpone any transit decision until labor shortages subside and customers become more comfortable with indoor dining.
After hours of debate, the city council instructed staff to prepare an annoying statement, but stopped issuing one until at least June. In a subsequent status report to city officials, Chick-fil-A’s attorneys said the changes have largely eliminated the queue on State Street.
During the noon rush on a recent Friday, a uniformed guard sorted vehicles into two tidy lines. A line backing up the road cleared quickly. But customers trying to navigate around the maze to find parking were still stuck, and an SUV pulled angry horns as it snuck in through the exit to avoid traffic.
Mr. Collins has proposed expanding its drive-through to accommodate more customers, though some residents worry it might just be pulling more chowhounds.
The driveway does not bother Mike Hamilton, an engineer who lives nearby.
“A lot of people here are retired and don’t have much else to do,” Mr. Hamilton while carrying two pepperoni pies from Rusty’s Pizza next door. “This is a small town, so people tend to get annoyed with little things.”
Write to Christine Mai-Duc at email@example.com
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