Chick-fil-A is opening an outpost in New York City on Saturday, marking a high-profile milestone in its push to become a bigger national player.
The Atlanta-based chain known for its fried chicken sandwiches with pickles has been stepping up its expansion and is opening nearly 100 new locations a year. The chain now has more than 1,900 stores in 42 states, although its heaviest presence is in the South.
"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."
Among the areas the company doesn't have as many stores are New England and the Northwest.
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 and $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.
Chick-fil-A expects its menu and service to win over New Yorkers as well. The location opening Saturday will be 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.
Even when Chick-fil-A opens in new markets, the company says transplants from its regional strongholds tend to help generate excitement for its offerings. 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 has already mapped the subway route from her apartment to the restaurant opening on Saturday.
"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 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.