The old adage “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” may have a corollary. Could it be that the way to a liberal/Progressive city’s heart is through its stomach?
That’s what probably scares New Yorker writer Dan Piepenbring. He has an article out in the magazine titled “”Chick-fil-A’s Creepy Infiltration of New York City.”
Yes, one of the South’s most popular eateries has him running scared.
During a recent lunch hour, I was alone on the rooftop of the largest Chick-fil-A in the world. The restaurant, on Fulton Street, is the company’s fourth in Manhattan, and it opened last month to the kind of slick, corporate-friendly fanfare that can only greet a new chain. The first hundred customers had participated in a scavenger hunt around the financial district. At an awards ceremony, the management honored them with a year’s supply of free chicken sandwiches and waffle fries. There were no such prizes on offer when I visited, but from the fifth-floor terrace—on the top floor of the restaurant, which is twelve thousand square feet—I could see that the line to get inside stretched almost to the end of the block. An employee took orders on a touch screen and corralled people through the doors. The air smelled fried.
New York has taken to Chick-fil-A. One of the Manhattan locations estimates that it sells a sandwich every six seconds, and the company has announced plans to open as many as a dozen more storefronts in the city. And yet the brand’s arrival here feels like an infiltration, in no small part because of its pervasive Christian traditionalism. Its headquarters, in Atlanta, is adorned with Bible verses and a statue of Jesus washing a disciple’s feet. Its stores close on Sundays. Its C.E.O., Dan Cathy, has been accused of bigotry for using the company’s charitable wing to fund anti-gay causes, including groups that oppose same-sex marriage. “We’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation,” he once said, “when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.’” The company has since reaffirmed its intention to “treat every person with honor, dignity and respect,” but it has quietly continued to donate to anti-L.G.B.T. groups. When the first stand-alone New York location opened, in 2015, a throng of protesters appeared. When a location opened in a Queens mall, in 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a boycott. No such controversy greeted the opening of this newest outpost. Chick-fil-A’s success here is a marketing coup. Its expansion raises questions about what we expect from our fast food, and to what extent a corporation can join a community.
I noticed that word — community — scattered everywhere in the Fulton Street restaurant. A shelf of children’s books bears a plaque testifying to “our love for this local community.” The tables are made of reclaimed wood, which creates, according to a Chick-fil-A press release, “an inviting space to build community.” A blackboard with the header “Our Community” displays a chalk drawing of the city skyline. Outside, you can glimpse an earlier iteration of that skyline on the building’s façade, which, with two tall, imperious rectangles jutting out, “gives a subtle impression of the Twin Towers.”
This emphasis on community, especially in the misguided nod to 9/11, suggests an ulterior motive. The restaurant’s corporate purpose still begins with the words “to glorify God,” and that proselytism thrums below the surface of the Fulton Street restaurant, which has the ersatz homespun ambiance of a megachurch. David Farmer, Chick-fil-A’s vice-president of restaurant experience, told BuzzFeed that he strives for a “pit crew efficiency, but where you feel like you just got hugged in the process.” That contradiction, industrial but claustral, is at the heart of the new restaurant—and of Chick-fil-A’s entire brand. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Cows.
It’s impossible to overstate the role of the Cows—in official communiqués, they always take a capital “C”—who are displayed in framed portraits throughout the Fulton Street location. If the restaurant is a megachurch, the Cows are its ultimate evangelists. Since their introduction in the mid-nineties—when they began advising Atlanta motorists to “EAT MOR CHIKIN”—they’ve remained one of the most popular, and most morbid, advertising campaigns in fast-food history, crucial to Chick-fil-A’s corporate culture. S. Truett Cathy, the chain’s founder and Dan Cathy’s late father, saw them as a tool to spread the gospel of chicken. In his Christian business book “Eat Mor Chikin: Inspire More People,” from 2002, he recalls crashing a child’s party at a Chick-fil-A in Hampton, Georgia. Brandishing a plush Cow toy before the birthday girl, he asked her, “What do the Cows say?”
She looked at me, puzzled. (Remember, she was barely three.)
“What do the Cows say?” I repeated.
“Moo,” she replied.
Everyone laughed at her pretty good answer, and I gave her a Cow and a hug and whispered the real answer to her. Then I turned to her mother and asked, “What do the Cows say?”
“Eat more chicken!” her mother cried . . . then, one by one, each person quoted the Cows and laughed.
Cathy died a billionaire, in 2014, but the “EAT MOR CHIKIN” mantra has survived. Though the Cows have never bothered to improve their spelling, franchises still hold an annual Cow Appreciation Day, offering free food to anyone dressed as a Cow. Employees dance around in Cow suits. The company’s advertising manager doubles as its “Cow czar.” The Cows have their own calendar. (This year’s theme is “Steers of Yesteryear.”) They’ve been inducted into the Madison Avenue Walk of Fame, and their Facebook following is approaching seven figures. Stan Richards, who heads the ad agency that created the Cows, the Richards Group, likened them to “a guerrilla insurgency” in his book, “The Peaceable Kingdom”: “One consumer wrote to tell us the campaign was so effective that every time he sees a field of cows he thinks of chicken. We co-opted an entire species.”
It’s worth asking why Americans fell in love with an ad in which one farm animal begs us to kill another in its place. Most restaurants take pains to distance themselves from the brutalities of the slaughterhouse; Chick-fil-A invites us to go along with the Cows’ Schadenfreude. In the portraits at the Fulton Street restaurant, the Cows visit various New York landmarks. They’re in Central Park, where “EAT MOR CHIKIN” has been mowed into the lawn. They’re glimpsing the Manhattan Bridge from Dumbo, where they’ve modified a stop sign: “stop eatin burgrz.” They’re on the subway, where the advertisements . . . you get the picture. The joke is that the Cows are out of place in New York—a winking acknowledgment that Chick-fil-A, too, does not quite belong here.
Its arrival in the city augurs worse than a load of manure on the F train. According to a report from the Center for an Urban Future, the number of chain restaurants in New York has doubled since 2008, crowding out diners and greasy spoons for whom the rent is too dear. Chick-fil-A, meanwhile, is set to become the third-largest fast-food chain in the nation, behind only McDonald’s and Starbucks. No matter how well such restaurants integrate into the “community,” they still venerate a deadening uniformity. Homogeneous food is comfort food, and chains know that their primary appeal is palliative. With ad after ad, and storefront after storefront, they have the resources to show that they’ve always been here for us, and recent trends indicate that we prefer them over anything new or untested.
Where to start on this nonsense?
Did you ever feel like you were in church when you went into the Union Ave. store? No. Maybe people who never enter one get that impression, but those of us who do can tell the difference. Easily.
Is Christianity catching? Is that what he’s afraid of? He objects to Jesus? No wonder New York is a failing, putrid, confused place.
Community is something Hillary Clinton insisted on. She told us it takes a village to raise a child. If that village is Christian, then it’s not acceptable?
Cows are its evangelists? Is he confused about Christianity and slurring Hinduism?
Could it be his elitism is showing? Nothing from the knuckle dragging/bible believing/gun toting Dixieland can ever be valid with this man.
Does he have no sense of humor? No. It’s not in the Leftist creed except when it’s used to make fun of others. That’s why we don’t have any good comedians anymore.
For God’s sake people are just going there to have a good chicken sandwich. Is that so wrong? My feelings about Starbucks are not positive, but I don’t think they should be run out of town.
Nor do they challenge my beliefs.
Maybe Mr. Piepenbring doesn’t really know what he believes. Maybe it’s creating doubt in his orthodoxy.
Maybe we win this culture war one sandwich at a time.