Bringing a franchise to New York City can be fraught with challenges for any franchisee. For a fried-chicken chain with conservative leanings and a history of anti-gay comments, the struggles are even greater. However, none of that is stopping Chick-fil-A.
The chicken chain announced plans to move into New York City in 2014, where it currently has only one restaurant inside a New York University residence hall food court. Chick-fil-A plans to open 108 restaurants total this year, primarily in urban locations, with a "sizeable chunk" reportedly in New York City.
Expanding into New York City is no easy feat for any franchise. Dairy Queen, which plans to open its first Manhattan location in May, noted the necessity of increasing over-the-counter speed and providing enough seating in urban locations that lack traditional drive-thrus while costing exorbitant amounts in rent. But for Chick-fil-A, the pressure of making it in New York has not been directed on individual franchisees' performances. Instead, the chain has been forced to focus on shifting the franchisor's reputation.
Two years ago, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy made headlines when he condemned same-sex marriage. In the past, the company has donated millions to groups that oppose marriage equality. Today, Cathy is changing his tune, telling USA Today that "all of us become more wise as time goes by," and, "I'm going to leave it to politicians and others to discuss social issues."
Chick-fil-A's leader's stance on gay marriage isn't the only thing the company is updating in attempts to appeal to urban markets outside the South. The chicken chain is rolling out grilled chicken for the first time ever, after 12 years of testing grilled chicken recipes. Chick-fil-A is on a health-conscious roll: last month, it announced plans to sell only antibiotic free chicken within five years and is testing the removal of high fructose corn syrup, artificial ingredients and dyes from products.
Chick-fil-A appears to believe that to succeed in New York City and other urban markets it needs to adjust to locals' socially progressive and health-conscious sensibilities. Urban locations also promise to have more natural wood and some will outfit chefs in chef's coats instead of traditional uniforms.
Loyal customers who have long supported the chain's fried chicken and social conservatism will be relieved – or disappointed – that one thing is staying the same: the chain still promises to remained closed on Sunday, for practical and spiritual reasons.