- Chick-fil-A is facing complaints from businesses and customers over its massive drive-thru lines.
- Four lawsuits linked to drive-thru lines have been filed since the pandemic began.
- Chick-fil-A is trying to address complaints with new jobs and updated designs.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Chick-fil-A’s massive drive-thru lines are the stuff of fast-food legend. Recently, when a South Carolina drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination clinic became snarled with traffic, the local mayor called Chick-fil-A for advice.
But for Mario Kiezi, the chicken chain’s success story has become a nightmare. In 2017, Kiezi bought a vacant shopping center in Toledo, Ohio. As he renovated the property and prepared for businesses to move in, a new Chick-fil-A opened its doors just yards away.
Then, when the pandemic forced the Chick-fil-A’s dining room to close, drive-thru traffic skyrocketed. To alleviate the congestion, a Chick-fil-A property-management representative emailed Kiezi to ask whether the location could temporarily extend its drive-thru line into the shopping center’s parking lot.
Kiezi said he did not respond. Chick-fil-A proceeded with its plans, adding signs that sent lines of cars winding through the lot and blocking parking spaces.
“Customers have a hard time getting in,” Kiezi told Insider. “Customers have a hard time leaving. In some instances, customers are trapped in their parking spots. We have had instances where people that are parked in handicap spaces are not able to back out of their space.”
As businesses started opening in the shopping center, customers struggled to find parking and exit the lot. Kiezi said he tried to get Chick-fil-A to fix the problem. Both Chick-fil-A and the location’s landlord, Mone Real Estate, refused, Kiezi said.
Finally, in November, Kiezi’s company filed a lawsuit against Chick-fil-A and Mone, seeking to halt what it described as a parasitic drive-thru.
Soon after, he spotted Jonathan Winn, the Chick-fil-A owner, in the parking lot. The pair had been friendly in the past, Kiezi said, and he wanted to apologize and tell Winn the suit was his last resort to protect his business.
“Essentially his response to me was, you have a zero percent chance of winning the lawsuit,” Kiezi said. “He essentially said that a lawsuit is very costly and you’re going to get drowned in legal fees.”
Kiezi is not alone. Insider spoke with 10 business owners, government employees, and Chick-fil-A workers who, along with local news reports, indicate that this problem runs nationwide. Insider found dozens of instances of business complaints, police intervention, and significant traffic problems linked to Chick-fil-A’s drive-thrus across more than 20 states in recent years.
Of course the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, as closed dining rooms and safety concerns send drive-thru traffic soaring. Insider found that Chick-fil-A has faced at least four lawsuits from local businesses and customers related to its drive-thru lanes since the pandemic began.
Business owners across the US told Insider that out-of-control lines were hurting their businesses, making it difficult for customers to reach shops, and driving away business. Police and transportation experts said the drive-thrus were creating traffic hazards linked to car crashes. Workers said they were facing new challenges on the job, even as the company said it was working to invent solutions.
Chick-fil-A said in a statement to Insider that it strives to be a good neighbor, and it pointed to its donations to local food banks and scholarships for employees.
“The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in mass dining room closures and increased activity in drive-thrus throughout the QSR sector,” Chick-fil-A said, “and we certainly experienced that shift at Chick-fil-A and worked quickly to modify our service processes practically overnight.
“In addition to corporate investment in innovation, our restaurant Operators and their leaders worked with and continue to work with landlords and local authorities on a localized throughput plan unique to each individual restaurant and community to identify the best possible solution that considers the needs of our customers, neighbors and Team Members.”
Since the pandemic began, 3 businesses have sued Chick-fil-A over its drive-thrus
Kiezi was one of three business owners to sue Chick-fil-A in 2020. He alleged that the chain’s massive drive-thru lines were hurting business.
In August, a Beaumont, Texas, shopping center, HAM, also sued Chick-fil-A, arguing that its drive-thru traffic regularly spilled over into its lot. That spill-over made it difficult for shoppers to park, with the complaint saying they could do so only “by dodging and weaving” between cars. The complaint added that the problem had been magnified by the popularity of the drive-thru during the pandemic.
HAM sought a restraining order and $14 million in damages, alleging that the center’s property value decreased because of its new reputation as an “inconvenient and hazardous place to shop.” Chick-fil-A and HAM jointly filed for a dismissal with prejudice in October; an attorney for HAM did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
In September, Chick-fil-A faced another suit, in Union, New Jersey. A Mediterranean restaurant, Pita Shack, sought a restraining order against Chick-fil-A, as well as compensatory damages. That complaint said “huge and constant” demand for Chick-fil-A hurt Pita Shack’s business because the drive-thru line was blocking its entrance. “The entire parking lot has become a large loop drive-thru lane with a capacity for almost 100 cars for the CFA restaurant,” the complaint said.
In November, that Chick-fil-A location was ordered to close its drive-thru. Then, in late December, a judge ordered the Chick-fil-A to hire professionals to manage traffic related to its drive-thru. After a settlement agreement between the parties, Pita Shack closed its restaurant at the end of January. Neither Pita Shack nor its attorney responded to Insider’s request for comment.
Kiezi filed his suit against Chick-fil-A and Mone Real Estate in December. In the weeks since, he said, his parking lot has remained packed with Chick-fil-A customers, which has made it difficult for anyone to visit the Toledo shopping center. An attorney for Mone did not respond to a request for comment. Chick-fil-A and the local franchisees declined to comment on the specific suits when contacted through a representative.
Andy Douglas, a lawyer representing Kiezi, said he’s received calls from businesses across the country dealing with the same problem. “The stories are almost identical — that poor people, who are individuals without the wherewithal to fight somebody like Chick-fil-A, are just expected to cave in and give them whatever they want,” Douglas said.
‘I feel like nobody really cares about us’
Sylvia Tan said she’s seen the negative effects of Chick-fil-A’s drive-thru every day. As the store manager of Joi Wig Salon, in Springfield, Virginia, she deals with customers constantly struggling to park and exit.
“The customers, they’re fed up,” Tan said. “All our spaces are blocked right in the front, including our handicap spots. And we have a lot of clients with disabilities.”
Tan said some customers cancel appointments because they can’t enter the lot. She said she was nearly hit by distracted drivers in the drive-thru lane and her car was struck by someone backing out of a tight spot. She said she and other Joi Wig Salon workers have had to direct traffic personally in order to help customers exit the lot safely.
Victor Albisu, the founder of Taco Bamba, which has a location in the same shopping center, said problems have worsened since Chick-fil-A added a double drive-thru early in the pandemic. He said it’s a “constant struggle,” one that creates issues for customers, delivery drivers, and employees.
With a line of cars standing between customers who ordered pickup and the restaurant, Taco Bamba workers said they end up weaving in between the cars in the drive-thru to fulfill orders.
“You sign up to be a cashier and then you’re really not a cashier — you’re somebody running across a mall with a bag of tacos,” Albisu said, adding that he’s constantly telling staff to stay safe.
Tan said she felt powerless to get results from Chick-fil-A or the property manager. Chick-fil-A and the franchisee declined to comment on the specific location. The property manager did not respond to a request for comment.
“We’re a small mom-and-pop shop,” Tan said. “So I feel like nobody really cares about us. The property manager … they care more about Chick-fil-A than us.”
On the other side of the country, in Logan, Utah, pastry-shop owner Mark Grodkowski has been facing similar problems. Grodkowski told The Utah Statesman that the long lines from Chick-fil-A’s drive-thru extend to the back of the shopping center’s parking lot, which has made it hard for his customers to park.
“It looks like Chick-fil-A is open again. Great news,” Grodkowski wrote on Facebook in November, with a photo showing cars winding through the shopping center that houses his store, Sweetly Divine.
He added, “I feel bad for my customers, because they have no place to park.”
In Pompano Beach, Florida, the owners of the hair salon TFS Hair Stylings and a Jimmy John’s told WSVN that they were losing customers because the Chick-fil-A drive-thru line cuts off access to their parking spots.
“Monday through Friday we are in war,” Aly Arnold, the Jimmy John’s franchise owner, said. “I apologize to all our customers.”
Arnold, Grodkowski, and Tan are facing some of the most extreme examples of what can happen when Chick-fil-A’s lines get out of control. Kalinowski Equity Research founder Mark Kalinowski told Insider that it was likely that 99% of Chick-fil-A locations do not cause such serious drive-thru problems.
Still, for many Chick-fil-A locations, problems begin as soon as the drive-thru is open for business.
Traffic hazards, accidents, and the Americans with Disabilities Act
The Chick-fil-A drive-thru problem typically presents itself immediately after new locations open as they frequently create lines dozens of cars long that back onto busy roads and block other businesses.
Problems do not necessarily stop when the excitement over a new Chick-fil-A wears off.
“Our officers deal with traffic issues at Chick-fil-A pretty much every day that they are open,” Tyler Jolley, the chief of police in Patton Township, Pennsylvania, said.
The Chick-fil-A in State College, Pennsylvania, is representative of a number of locations that Insider found created traffic problems because they backed out onto a busy road.
Some of the problematic locations previously housed a different fast-food concept. Many converted KFCs and McDonald’s simply were not built to handle the rush of customers that Chick-fil-A faces every day. A Chick-fil-A location made an average of roughly $4.5 million in sales in 2019. By comparison, McDonald’s US locations made roughly $2.9 million on average in the same time period.
Beyond local businesses’ complaints, mammoth drive-thru lanes cause other problems.
Accidents, too, are a serious concern. There were four accidents near the State College Chick-fil-A in 2019, and four more in 2020 — a figure Jolley says is surprisingly low considering the hazards. The one-tenth of a mile containing the entrance to a Chick-fil-A on an overdeveloped road in Clemson, South Carolina, saw 71 crashes over three years, a Department of Transportation report found.
Jolley said officers have given out 50 citations for the illegal left-turn violations at the State College Chick-fil-A since December, but efforts to reduce congestion and hazards “have been futile.”
Jessica Manzi, a senior transportation coordinator in Redwood City, California, told Insider that making the local Chick-fil-A safe could cost the city up to $45,000 in traffic modifications.
Blocking parking spaces can also cause problems for Chick-fil-A’s own customers.
In April, a woman with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and her family sued Chick-fil-A, alleging that a Pembroke Pines, Florida, location’s drive-thru — redesigned in 2019 to accommodate an increase in customers — obstructed the business’ handicapped spots, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The case was settled outside of court in June. (An attorney for the family declined to comment.)
Chick-fil-A says it’s using new strategies to address concerns
Chick-fil-A has rolled out changes that it hopes will cut wait times and address traffic problems. Drive-thru mobile ordering allows customers to order and pay in advance. Signs and cones control traffic, and additional drive-thru lanes aim to help handle increased volume.
The chain also has workers walk up to cars in the drive-thru line and take orders on iPads. It positions workers in safety gear in the parking lot to direct traffic.
Some workers told Insider that while new strategies have helped with speed, they’ve created new problems.
“I’ve been out 3.5 hours on meal delivery when it was 10 degrees or less,” a 21-year-old employee at a Chick-fil-A in the Midwest told Insider. “We couldn’t see the end of our parking lot because of how thick this storm was. I had literal chunks of ice in my hair.”
Another worker, from Indiana, said that going from car to car meant employees had to deal with hostile customers and complaints from neighboring businesses. In some cases, the employee said, customers have become aggressive when he’s attempted to enforce mask policies, and sometimes it’s led to arguments.
Chick-fil-A said in a statement that workers’ safety was a “fundamental design principle” as the chain worked “to better serve customers in the drive-thru during the pandemic.”
Chick-fil-A is adding heated canopies and other shelters at locations with more extreme weather. This winter, Chick-fil-A rolled out new apparel for employees, including gloves, weatherproof boots, and a jacket designed to be worn in temperatures as low as seven degrees below zero. Some employees can wear “weather pods” — neon-yellow contraptions that look like a combination of a small tent and a crossing guard’s vest.
“We recognize our Operators’ Team Members are working extra hard to accommodate an increase in drive-thru and delivery orders while most restaurant dining rooms remain closed during this time,” Chick-fil-A said in a statement.
Drive-thru chaos could create problems for Chick-fil-A down the road
Chick-fil-A’s long drive-thru lines are not necessarily a new phenomenon, though it’s one that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Chick-fil-A is by far the slowest national chain in America, according to SeeLevel’s 2020 QSR drive-thru survey. The average wait time from joining the end of the line to pick-up clocks in at 8 minutes, 8 seconds. By comparison, McDonald’s averaged 5 minutes, 49 seconds. KFC averaged 4 minutes, 43 seconds.
Yet Chick-fil-A still managed top marks in the survey, taking the No. 1 spot in customer service, accuracy, and taste. According to SeeLevel CEO Lisa van Kesteren, Chick-fil-A’s wait times are long not because workers are slow but because demand is so much higher than at other chains.
Chick-fil-A customers “know exactly what to expect,” van Kesteren said. “They know the quality. They know they’re going to move through quickly, even if they wait a little bit longer. And being able to see people working fast and trying to do a good job and saying ‘my pleasure’ … it goes a really long way with customer service.”
The wait at Chick-fil-A is getting longer. According to SeeLevel’s survey, average wait times at Chick-fil-A in 2020 were more than one second longer than in 2019, and a whopping 1 minute, 22 seconds longer than in 2018.
Typically, drive-thrus account for 70% of sales at fast-food chains. But in 2020 chains like Wendy’s and McDonald’s said that figure was 90%. For sales to stay flat or to increase, lines had to get substantially longer, even when accounting for more expensive, larger orders.
Chick-fil-A’s ultimate goal is to create a great experience for customers
There’s no evidence long lines are hurting Chick-fil-A’s business. It experienced high single-digit sales growth last year, preliminary estimates by the food-service research firm Technomic showed. As a private company, Chick-fil-A’s financials are not public knowledge, and the company declined to share its 2020 sales figures.
But experts said that if Chick-fil-A drive-thrus create problems in more communities, customers of Chick-fil-A and neighboring businesses could turn against the chain. Credit Suisse analyst Lauren Silberman told Insider that problems with the drive-thru line run counter Chick-fil-A’s “ultimate goal” of creating a great experience for customers.
One solution to the problem could be opening more Chick-fil-A locations to alleviate crowds.
The chain has been steadily growing over the past decade, from a regional brand with a cult following to the third-largest chain in the US by sales.
Curbside pickup and delivery can take the pressure off the drive-thru lane. Silberman pointed to the chain’s ghost-kitchen push as another attempt to keep up with demand and reduce lines.
And more Chick-fil-A locations are being built or renovated to feature double drive-thrus, which can help speed up traffic.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you see them get creative in other ways with drive-thru,” Silberman said.
For business owners like Kiezi and Tan, a solution cannot come quickly enough. Tan said that Joi Wig Salon planned to move when its lease is up later this year.
“It was solely because of the Chick-fil-A line,” Tan said. “There was no other reason.”