As food editor for The Buffalo News, it is my job to explore significant developments in the local food landscape. Whether I want to or not.
So when my boss told me to get in a car and go find out why a surprisingly robust segment of the population was devouring stories about the pending arrival of Chick-fil-A, I stowed my monocle and silk cravat and got ready to eat some chicken.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not too haughty for fast food. I’ve eaten my share of chicken sandwiches, hot off the drive-thru, steering with one hand and peeling back the paper with my teeth.
Wendy’s Homestyle Chicken is my current favorite. Real chicken breast, not those chicken paste patties, on a grilled bun with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. Excellent meat-to-crunch ratio, a simple satisfaction.
I’d never had Chick-fil-A, though. A 95-minute drive to Erie, Pa., in the passenger seat, gave me time to research before my Chick-fil-A debut.
Chick-fil-A is among the most successful fast-food companies in America. In 2016, its stores took in an average of $4.4 million, eclipsing second-place Whataburger ($2.7 million), according to QSR, a fast-food industry trade magazine. That’s the case even though they’re only open six days a week, closing Sundays in line with the religious beliefs of its Southern Baptist founder.
In 2012, before it had a store open in New York, some Chick-fil-A locations were picketed after company head Dan Cathy told an interviewer that allowing gay marriage would invite “God’s judgement on our nation.” The company’s foundation had also donated millions of dollars to groups opposing gay marriage.
Protests led to counterprotests, of company fans buying more Chick-fil-A in support. Sales were actually up that year, but in 2014 Cathy told USA Today he was done with public stands: “I'm going to leave it to politicians and others to discuss social issues.”
The company has prospered through the controversy. By the time it opens in Cheektowaga on Nov. 29, it will have more than 2,200 company-owned, franchisee-operated stores. There’s five Chick-fil-As opening that day across the United States, from Methuen, Mass., to Las Vegas.
The Erie store was crowded at lunchtime, a line of drive-thru-destined vehicles curled around the building. Before I got in line, I used the restroom, where I found something I’ve never before seen in a fast-food restaurant. On the counter next to the sink was a fresh chrysanthemum in a vase.
Fresh flowers in the bathroom? I went back into the dining room, crowded with families, and noticed fresh flowers – roses, lilies, more mums – on the tables.
The other main ingredient in a nicer-than-typical-fast-food room was service. Not just cheery cashiers, but servers who bring your food to your table and circulate, busing tables and fetching customers refills on their water and fresh-squeezed lemonade.
Say “thank you” and they reply "my pleasure.” It’s a creed of determined niceness that contrasts with the average fast-food retail crew, whose demeanor can range from cheery to grim.
The chicken? It’s good. A plump chicken breast, plenty moist and well-fried, with a softer surface that doesn’t aim for fried chicken crunch.
It’s also less expensive than competing whole-breast sandwiches: $3.65 for the basic sandwich, of chicken on a buttered, grilled roll, atop two dill pickle chips. (My Wendy’s sandwich was $5.39; Popeye’s chicken tender po’ boy is $5.99, Arby’s buttermilk breaded chicken is $5.99, and KFC’s Crispy Colonel is $3.99.)
Many customers stopped to add a swipe of “Chick-fil-A sauce” before chomping. It’s a catchy condiment, for sure, a cross between honey mustard and smoky barbecue.
Chick-fil-A’s sauces are so popular that in addition to the little plastic-topped packets handed out with food orders, one can buy them by the cup ($2.10). Another popular offering is Polynesian sauce, a tangy dip reminiscent of the day-glo sweet and sour sauce at Chinese buffets.
In Chick-fil-A’s focus on one muscle – chicken breast – the restaurant has built-in advantages. The spicy version is actually spicy. The grilled-not-fried version actually carries a little char flavor from the grill, to its benefit.
Once upon a time Chick-fil-A waffle fries may have been exotic. Now they’re decent, an excuse to hoover more sauce. Milkshakes ($3.15), whipped up from ice cream and syrup, are topped with whipped cream and a cherry.
The lack of texture makes its chicken less engaging, but I’d expect it to find its audience in Buffalo, unless its price advantage unravels here.
When Chick-fil-A’s doors open Nov. 29, people who find the company owner’s views unappetizing will be free to drive on by. And people who want to get their fried chicken sandwiches with smoky mustard sauce and a “my pleasure” can drive on through.