The Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich has come to the Big Apple.
the fast-food chain known for its fried chicken sandwiches and the sometimes polarizing conservative beliefs of the family that owns it, opened its first free-standing, location in New York City in busy Herald Square on Saturday.
More than 100 people camped outside the store on Friday night to wait for the chance to get free chicken sandwiches and waffle fries for a year, a custom for every Chick-Fil-A opening.
The restaurant's opening is perhaps the most high-profile location amid a national push from the Atlanta-based chain's push to expand outside the South. The chain has been opening nearly 100 locations a year, and plans to open dozens throughout the tri-state in the coming months. Currently, there are 1,900 Chick-Fil-A's in 42 states. The northeast is one of the regions with the fewest locations.
"We feel like we're pretty small and we could build restaurants for a long time," said David Farmer, Chick-fil-A's vice president of menu strategy and development. "There are so many places where we have no presence, or limited presence. It's just a lot of opportunity."
Chick-fil-A expects its menu and service to win over New Yorkers. The location is its largest in the country, spanning 5,000 square feet over two floors and a basement with an extra kitchen.
Over the next two years, the company plans to open several more locations in New York City. The company already has a location on the campus of New York University, but the menu is limited.
For those who don't live near a Chick-fil-A, the chain may be better known for the Christian beliefs of its founder Truett Cathy than for its sweet tea and waffle fries. On its website, the privately-held company says its corporate purpose is to "glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us."
Its stores are closed on Sundays, and the New York City location will not be an exception.
In 2012, Chick-fil-A touched off protests by gay rights advocates after CEO Dan Cathy voiced support for "biblical families." The company has since tried to draw a distinction that the beliefs of its ownership and its business.
In a fact sheet for the media, Chick-fil-A notes that it "does not have an opinion as an organization."
Regardless, Chick-fil-A restaurants continue to outperform other chains. Last year, its stores on average pulled in $3.2 million in sales, according to industry tracker Technomic. That's compared with $2.5 million for McDonald's, $1.2 million for Burger King and just $960,000 for KFC.
Part of the attraction might be that Chick-fil-A is known for its friendly service. When a customer says "thank you," for instance, workers are trained to respond with "my pleasure" instead of a phrase such as "no problem." The latter suggests that the service provided might have been an inconvenience, said Farmer.
When Chick-fil-A opens in new markets, the company says transplants from its regional strongholds help generate excitement for its arrival. That is the case for Amanda Haas, a 25-year-old administrative assistant in New York City who grew up in Texas.
Haas said she likes that the cuts of chicken seem like quality meat, and that there's just "something about the breading." She already mapped the subway route from her apartment to the restaurant.
"It's a trek to get there, but it's one of those treks I'd make," she said.
For now, Chick-fil-A is still comparable in size to Chipotle and Popeye's, which each have roughly 1,800 locations in the U.S., according to Technomic. By comparison, McDonald's has more than 14,300 locations, and KFC has more than 4,300.