It was 7:20 p.m. on a Thursday. I’d finished a long day of work and a rare trip to the gym and had just turned right from Hitchcock onto State Street when the car in front of me slammed on its brakes. I jammed mine too, wincing as I watched the SUV behind me get bigger and bigger in the rearview mirror. It stopped just in time. Horns blared. We were caught in one of Santa Barbara’s dumbest and most dangerous dilemmas ― the regular uptown traffic jam caused by Chick-fil-A’s drive-through line spilling into the street, oftentimes a dozen cars deep.
First, I kept calm. Then, I saw red. It wasn’t my only close call there. I jumped into the left lane and (I’m not proud of this) leaned on my horn as I drove down the line. Some customers honked back. I felt crummy about it and a little crazy, but then again, the situation is absolutely crazy-making.
A few blocks and deep breaths later, I regained my composure. And I decided that, rather than stay mad at the Chick-fil-A superfans ― who’ve been the cause of three accidents in the past year alone ― I’d try and discover why this particular fast food craving overrides all sense of safety and decency. What makes it so irresistible? What’s in that famous Chick-fil-A sauce? (Turns out it’s simply a mixture of honey mustard, barbecue, and ranch dressing…) What’s the big deal? I made a U-turn to find out.
It meant breaking the personal boycott I made back in 2013 when the chain opened its first and only South Coast location. Like many others, I refused to give my business to a company who donated to anti-LGBTQ+ charities. It also meant violating a doctor’s advice to watch my cholesterol, because, let’s just say, I know my way around a McDonald’s double quarter-pounder, with cheese.
But this was no time to let one man’s morals or health blind him from duty. This was time to step up as an investigative journalist and noted junk-food authority. I would get to the bottom of this very Santa Barbara controversy.
By the time I got in line, it was blocking the driveway of the Rusty’s Pizza Parlor next door. I stopped to let a truck pull out. The driver glared down, and I gave a sort of half-smile, half-wave apology. He shot back the finger. Two Rusty’s delivery drivers pulled out behind him and angrily held down their horns as they sped along State Street. The queue hugged the curb, but that only blocked the bike lane and still didn’t leave enough room for cars to pass. A couple of customers turned on their hazard lights as they crept toward the “ENTER” sign. My palms started to sweat. I kept watching for cops.
Once inside the safety of the Chick-fil-A lot, I was approached by an order-taker with a high ponytail and a large iPad. “Man, it’s rough out here,” I said. “Yeah,” she responded. “We get yelled at by people allll the time. And it’s my job to talk to them.” “What do you say?” I asked. “I’m sorry?” she shrugged. I explained this was my first time here. She said she recommended everything. I went with the #2 Spicy Chicken meal, with cheese. I couldn’t help but notice the 17 empty parking spaces surrounding the restaurant, and the very few people eating inside.
Ten minutes later, with food and soda finally in hand, the moment of truth had arrived. Perhaps the sweet voices of angels would burst forth from this white paper bag and deliver unto me a sandwich of divine enlightenment. Or at least one that I could say was really tasty and worth the hype. My heart and mind were open.
But it was not to be. I can say, confidentially and objectively, that my $6.79 meal was bad. Not just below expectations, but actually bad. The Sprite was way too sweet; the soda fountain’s water/syrup ratio must have been wrong. The skimpy helping of waffle fries was under-fried and under-seasoned. And cold. The sandwich itself ― a disaster. The bun looked sat-on, the cheese was like elastic, the pickles played no discernable role, and the fried white chicken meat tasted like fried white chicken meat. Nothing remarkable about it. If anything, it was a little dry. The spicy seasoning failed to deliver any actual heat, only a dull whitewash of salt. Finally, the Chick-fil-A sauce that was supposed to blow my hair back and socks off at the same time fell soberly flat.
I realize this is just one person’s opinion on one specific experience. Maybe the kitchen was having an off day. But now that I know the truth, that Chick-fil-A is like any other fast food joint, bound by the laws of this mortal plane, I feel comfortable asking my fellow Santa Barbarans: If the craving hits, and Chick-fil-A’s drive-through line is backing into the street, please don’t sacrifice our safety for your sandwich. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets seriously hurt. Either park and order inside or consider another option altogether. Jack-In-the-Box, for example, has a drive-through two doors down with a damn good chicken sandwich for the exact same price. Plus, their fries ― especially their curly fries ― are much better.
To the folks at Chick-fil-A: You say you’re working on a solution. You say, “We want nothing more than to be a good neighbor.” Then do it already. It’s within your power to start fixing things right away. Hire a security guard to move cars along before they can clog the road, make people park in your big lot, or temporarily block off the entrance if the line and all the spaces fill up. Clearly, the new curbside delivery and pay-in-advance options aren’t working. The permanent solution will be to reconfigure your single-lane drive-through into two or three lanes. With an average of 358 seconds per transaction, compared to 255 seconds industry-wide, you have the slowest drive-throughs in the country. But from what I understand, the plans you’ve submitted to the city aren’t up to snuff. It’s time to put this ridiculous issue to rest. The good-neighbor promise is wearing thin.
If you don’t make some real moves, and soon, the city can, and should, declare you a “public nuisance.” That way, it can start issuing fines and even revoke your permit, which you were lucky enough to inherit from Burger King. And please don’t suggest our police could help more. They have better things to do than sit around and write tickets in front of your restaurant.
In the meantime, even if the line is short, I’ll continue taking my salt and fat hankerings elsewhere. Not only because of that awful first experience, but also because I don’t have faith Chick-fil-A will honor the promise it recently made to stop donating to anti-LGBTQ+ charities. It made a similar commitment in 2012, then went right on giving, including to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which says in its Statement of Faith: “[W]e believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.”
Plus, for my money, there are plenty of better fast-food options out there. I even hear there’s a guy you can pay to bring Popeye’s all the way from Santa Maria. Maybe I’ll give that a shot. Just don’t tell my doctor.