Let’s tackle Charlotte’s Chick-fil-A traffic problem
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Cars are backed up all over town at Chick-fil-A restaurants, creating traffic snarls and causing wrecks; What can be done?
Cars encircle the Chick-fil-A on Randolph Road in Cotswold from sunrise to sunset, and traffic often backs up into the street. (Photo by Kevin Young/The 5 and 2 Project)
by Tony Mecia
Like a lot of big cities, Charlotte faces a host of intractable problems: affordable housing, crime, gentrification.
It also faces a smaller hard-to-solve challenge that is beguiling other cities and really gets under the skin of drivers and urban planners. I’m talking, of course, about the problem of traffic spilling out of Charlotte’s Chick-fil-A drive-thrus.
Yeah, it’s annoying. It’s fun to grumble about with friends. But with cars consuming entire lanes of traffic in pursuit of waffle fries, it’s also a safety issue — and an issue of basic fairness. Why are we allowing a private company to hijack our publicly financed roads for the benefit of a single restaurant chain — especially one headquartered in Atlanta?
And what about the effect on other businesses — like Bojangles and PNC Bank beside the city’s worst Chick-fil-A traffic offender, the Cotswold location — whose entrances are routinely blocked by cars in the queue?
Often, the search for solutions to the Chick-fil-A traffic conundrum ends with an aw-shucks-what-are-you-gonna-do fatalism. But Charlotte, I’m here to tell you that after talking with traffic engineers, transportation planners, local politicians and others, we have options. They might not be great options, and they might be politically unrealistic or impractical.
But what if we started asking: What can be done to try to solve this problem? This city landed pro sports teams and built one of the country’s busiest airports and attracted Fortune 500 companies. It’s brimming with smart and creative people. Can we harness some of that energy and can-do spirit and fix this?
It’s going to take some will — on the part of the city, and on the part of Chick-fil-A and its local franchise operators — to see results and to reclaim our streets.
Full disclosure: I like Chick-fil-A’s food. They make a tasty chicken sandwich. And their waffle fries, if correctly salted, are divine. But I also live in Cotswold, where I witness this Chick-fil-A traffic fiasco almost every day. There must be a way for them to sell chicken while not creating hassles for the rest of us.
The origins of the problem
Understand that this is not just a Charlotte phenomenon. All over the country, cities are struggling with overflow Chick-fil-A traffic. The chicken chain has been sued in Ohio, Texas and New Jersey by adjacent property owners who have had to contend with all the traffic. Santa Barbara, Calif., threatened to declare a Chick-fil-A a public nuisance because of the traffic it generates. An investigation last year by the business publication 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.”
A highly unscientific poll of 647 Twitter users this week shows that Cotswold’s Chick-fil-A takes the prize as the worst traffic offender.
In addition, the Chick-fil-A traffic problems stem not from slow service, but rather the opposite: from its success in moving cars though the drive-thru efficiently — so much so that hungry drivers know that a long line does not mean a long wait. Academics who have studied consumer queuing behavior use the term “line balking” to describe customers who refuse to enter a line that’s too long; my guess is that drivers would tolerate a 20-car line at a Chick-fil-A while balking at a similar line at, say, a Taco Bell. (Sorry, Taco Bell.)
Long lines, satisfied customers: The restaurant’s drive-thrus might be efficient, but the lines tend to be longer than competitors’. Chick-fil-A has consistently had a longer average drive-thru wait time (8 minutes) than any other major fast food chain over at least the previous five years, according to a 2020 study of drive-thru restaurants. Yet surveys show it remains the most admired chain, while also raking in more revenue per restaurant than its competitors (about $8 million in median annual sales for non-mall locations). It accomplishes that financial feat even though its stores are closed on Sundays.
“With Chick-fil-A, I think they have perfected the drive-thru business model,” says John Holmes, a former night manager at the Chick-fil-A on Albemarle Road in east Charlotte. At his restaurant, the drive-thru accounted for about 60% of sales.
Wrecks and road rage: But he says the drive-thru’s popularity also caused problems, such as car wrecks and road rage and drivers yelling in frustration at Chick-fil-A workers, many of whom are teenagers:
Personally, while I was working there, I witnessed about 10 car crashes tied to how congested the area was. … The congestion frustrates people so much that they fight with other people to get into it. … You would have people who were super-frustrated with how long it was taking that would literally get out of the car and start yelling at the traffic person.
Holmes worked at the Albemarle Road location for about a year and a half, before he says he was fired in January of this year after criticizing plans for a drive-thru at a different location on Facebook.
He says that once a restaurant hits $7 million in annual sales, the company comes in and does what’s called a “scrape and rebuild,” shutting the store for a period of time and expanding the drive-thru to two lanes. Charlotte Chick-fil-A’s that have expanded their drive-thrus to two lanes include restaurants at the Arboretum, Cotswold, Woodlawn Road near Park Road Shopping Center and others.
John Holmes, an urbanist who was a night manager at an east Charlotte Chick-fil-A, was interviewed recently on the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute podcast “Future Charlotte.”
Transportation planners sometimes use the term “induced demand” to describe the effect of adding a lane to an existing road, which is often followed by an increase in traffic on that road. It’s the same at a Chick-fil-A: Expand the drive-thru, and more traffic comes to fill the available space.
So it’s not as though Chick-fil-A is doing nothing. The company and its franchise operators are spending money to revamp their restaurants. They are adding staff at the drive-thrus to take orders on tablets. Workers now collect payments on mobile card readers. Yet the problem persists. It’s worse at some locations than others.
Asked how Chick-fil-A is addressing the traffic issues at its restaurants, a company spokesman said in a statement:
We have teams dedicated to constantly innovating and looking at new ways to elevate the guest experience and improve efficiency in the drive-thru. Some of the changes we’ve implemented include adding extra drive-thru lanes, expanding face-to-face order taking with iPads to expedite ordering, improving directional signage, and expanding both curbside pickup and delivery options.
We continue testing new ideas, and thanks to the adaptability and creativity of our Operators and their Team Members, guests continue enjoying the same quality food with the service, speed and hospitality they expect from Chick-fil-A.
I also reached out to the franchise owners at several Charlotte locations but did not hear back.
More than a traffic problem
Part of the trouble in tackling the problem is that it’s not strictly a traffic issue. It’s also a planning and land use issue, as well as a business issue.
Traffic planners are attempting to address the problem in some locations. In Cotswold, officials with the Charlotte Department of Transportation (CDOT) are recommending some improvements, as part of a rezoning process. They said Chick-fil-A needs to do a traffic analysis and noted that it’s in a “high injury network area, within a high congestion location.”
They’re recommending extending a concrete median to prevent left turns into and out of the site, and the restaurant is proposing to seal off the current entrance, use the current Randolph Road exit as the new entrance and expand to three drive-thru ordering lanes, which should accommodate more vehicles. The ideas are in conjunction with a planned rebuild of the Cotswold Chick-fil-A that would eliminate the indoor dining room to allow for the drive-thru expansion. The precise plans are in flux, and Charlotte engineering consulting firm Kimley-Horn is working on the issue. There should be a City Council public hearing on the proposed changes in the next few months, followed a few weeks later by a vote.
Plans for a redone Chick-fil-A in Cotswold call for expanding the drive-thru to three lanes.
“With any drive-thru, and especially with one as popular as a Chick-fil-A, we really want to limit the impact to our public streets as much as we can,” said Brandon Brezeale, development service division manager for CDOT. The city’s main chance to do that is during rezoning applications and permitting. And the city can take what it learns in one location and apply it to other spots, he said.
It also seems that some Chick-fil-A sites are just too small to accommodate the demand without cars jutting out into the street. Of Charlotte’s Chick-fil-A restaurants, the ones on Woodlawn Road and in Cotswold are the smallest, on just 0.9 acres. A typical Chick-fil-A is on closer to 1.3 acres. For years, though, many of the Chick-fil-A restaurants in Charlotte survived on these parcels without traffic problems, so maybe we shouldn’t blame planners for allowing Chick-fil-A restaurants on small sites. It can be hard for businesses, let alone government, to anticipate changes in consumer preferences.
City departments say there’s nothing they can do:
A code enforcement spokeswoman told me that “zoning regulations don’t cover this, so code enforcement wouldn’t be able to enforce anything.”
A police spokesman said: “As every situation is different with different actions being taken by motorists, it is difficult to assign a violation of law.”
If responsibility for solving traffic woes at Chick-fil-A were a meme, it would look something like this.
I’ve looked through the city ordinances and see nothing that allows Charlotte to declare these sites public nuisances, or fine them — or really do much of anything that would disrupt the status quo.
Innovation the key: Charlotte City Council member Tariq Bokhari, whose district includes some of the traffic-troubled restaurants, says he’s confident the company will innovate its way out of the challenges. He likened the fast-food chain to Henry Ford and to visionaries he has seen on The History Channel’s “Food That Built America” series.
“It’s a business model that is so massively popular that this is a problem they continue to have, which is amazing,” Bokhari said. “I’ve seen them nimbly not just sit back and say, ‘It is what it is.’ They have literally redesigned stores. … As long as they continue to innovate at the pace they are going, we should be very lucky to count them as our neighbors.”
Martin Kane, a professor specializing in traffic engineering at UNC Charlotte, said the long lines at Chick-fil-A sound like “just a relatively basic supply and demand problem” — surging demand, and not enough supply.
He theorized that labor shortages are cutting down on the restaurants’ efficiency and questioned whether they have enough room to accommodate all the vehicles.
“There are a lot of things to consider when you locate this restaurant,” he said. “You have to have enough space on this site, and it helps to have a well-run facility in front of it, so they can get in and out relatively well.”
At lunchtime one day this week, I entered the Cotswold drive-thru line to see how fast it moved (and to shamelessly be able to expense my lunch). It was 14 cars deep on Randolph Road, almost to the intersection with Sharon Amity. At the 9:01 mark, I turned into the driveway. At the 14:30 mark, I ordered my go-to No. 1 combo, and about 3 minutes later — 17 minutes and 35 seconds after entering the line — I had my food. I later observed that at the lunch rush, the drive-thru window distributed food to a new vehicle on average every 20 seconds. That works out to serving nearly 200 vehicles an hour.
So what can be done?
A few ideas — some sensible, some borderline outlandish. But remember that if you’re brainstorming, there are no bad ideas:
Open more Chick-fil-A’s. It’s possible that opening more Chick-fil-A’s would take some of the pressure off the existing ones with traffic troubles. This might already be happening: Last month, a developer outlined plans for one on Wendover Road in Grier Heights that was termed a “relief Chick-fil-A” for Cotswold.
Restrict the menu. Have you ever seen one of those Gordon Ramsay shows, where he goes into some tired restaurant, tells them their food is lousy and demands they simplify the menu? That could help. Chick-fil-A’s menu might already be less sprawling than other chains’, but it’s not as simple as, say, In-N-Out Burger’s. Does Chick-fil-A need to sell wraps, three salads, six sandwiches, chicken noodle soup and mac and cheese? Or should it stick to the basics — a couple sandwiches and nuggets — to expedite things in the kitchen?
Mandate larger parcels for drive-thrus. At less than one acre, some of the site sizes are too small to accommodate the demand. The city could require larger parcels for future drive-thrus, though this wouldn’t help existing sites. By my reading, the city’s proposed new development ordinance largely skirts the drive-thru issue.
Study it. It’s a thorny issue with no clear-cut, easy solution. What if the City Council asked the city attorney to study possible fixes and come back with some options?
Road diet. The entire stretch of Randolph Road by the Chick-fil-A is a nightmare. What if you reduced the number of public lanes from five to four, put up some bollards (or landscaping) and sold the right-hand lane to Chick-fil-A? Upside: would slow traffic and make the corridor more pedestrian-friendly. Downside: Would probably cause traffic bottlenecks, and we’d have to get creative on the design, especially considering other businesses.
Health proclamation. In the last couple years, we’ve learned that county health officials, in conjunction with elected leaders, wield great power to issue orders in the name of health and safety. Given the traffic accidents (and possibly the less-healthy menu items), can we get some proclamations, orders and directives going that would limit the number of cars? Paging Raynard Washington.
Eminent domain. North Carolina law gives local governments broad powers to acquire private land for public purposes. What if the city started making noises that it wants to build police substations or parks on the site of traffic-troubled Chick-fil-A restaurants? That would incentivize the Chick-fil-A’s to solve the problem — a problem that should be theirs, and not ours. (In case they call the city’s bluff, the tax value of the Cotswold Chick-fil-A is a little over $1.8M.)
OK, those are my ideas. Now let’s get the ball rolling.
Or should I say: “My pleasure.”
Tony Mecia is executive editor of The Charlotte Ledger.
What are your ideas?
➡️ What do you think should be done? How can we improve traffic around Chick-fil-A restaurants? Drop us an email, or leave a response in the comments.
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