The Town Council approved Chick-fil-A’s application to open a West Hartford location and construction is expected to begin this summer.
By Ronni Newton
Chick-fil-A’s plans to open a location on New Park Avenue in West Hartford, first announced in December 2015, will become reality following the Town Council’s 8-1 vote of approval Tuesday night.
Prior to the Town Council meeting, a public hearing was held where presentations were made by several parties, including Chick-fil-A Development Supervisor Scott Goodson, zoning attorney Susan Hays, and Chuck Coursey, who had been contracted to handle community outreach for the company.
No residents spoke at the hearing.
Georgia-based Chick-fil-A is known for its original chicken sandwich and unique franchise model, and according to the company was recognized in 2015 as America’s “Top Chicken Restaurant Brand” by The Harris Poll. According to Goodson, the restaurant has 2,000 locations across 42 states and opens approximately 90 new locations each year.
Although it has received many accolades, Chick-fil-A also attracted negative press several years ago for statements made by CEO Dan Cathy, who professed support for “traditional marriage.” Cathy admitted that he made a mistake, and although many in the LGBT community remain skeptical, corporate giving practices have since been changed and some conservatives have now accused Cathy of selling out to the “left.”
Coursey said that rather than ignoring a potential controversy, he decided to “hang a lantern” on the issue and during the outreach process reached out to State Sen. Beth Bye – a strong leader in West Hartford as well as in the LGBT community. “Sen. Bye had expressed concern and said she had never visited a Chick-fil-A and had no intention of doing so, but said it was a very productive meeting and she appreciated the outreach,” Coursey said. Bye also favored the impact the development would have on the New Park neighborhood.
“Do you hire gay people?” Council member Beth Kerrigan straightforwardly asked Goodson.
“Absolutely. We’re not anti-anyone,” Goodson responded. “We don’t want to be part of a political debate. We focus on food and hospitality.” Goodson said that the company does not have discriminatory policies and provides benefits to employees in same sex marriages without discrimination.
“I am wearing a purple sweater, have purple socks, on and I am wearing a lavender pin,” Kerrigan said just before she cast her vote in favor of the application. As someone very involved with the LGBT community – Kerrigan and Jody Mock, who is now her wife, were lead plaintiffs in a state Supreme Court case that led to the legalization of gay marriage – Kerrigan said she believes that Chick-fil-A has changed. “I appreciate your assuring my community that we are welcome,” she said.
Republican Council member Chris Barnes also said he appreciated Goodson’s assurances that Chick-fil-A is not “anti-anyone.” “We expect it to be ‘anti-no one,'” he said.
Kerrigan, Barnes, and other Council members said they also appreciated Chick-fil-A’s unique owner/operator franchise model and cited that as one of the factors leading to a vote in favor of the application.
Owner/operators only need to invest $10,000 to open a Chick-fil-A, Goodson said, one reason that there are thousands of applicants – 30,000 last year for 95 locations. When an owner/operator leaves, which is most often at retirement Goodson said, their investment is returned. The selection process is very competitive, and Goodson said that they seek to attract candidates who are looking to be entrepreneurs and who have the right skill set.
The owner/operator franchise model has been the corporate concept ever since founder Truett Cathy began the business in 1967. Goodson said that while the local owner/operator for West Hartford has not yet been hired, it will be someone who has a stake in the community. “We want to find someone who is going to be embedded and ingrained for the long haul.”
The owner/operator model, use of fresh and hand-made food, and a commitment to customer service are the hallmarks of the business, Goodson said. He said that if a customer says, “Thank you!” to a team member they will get the response, “My pleasure!”
“We get teenagers at 2,000 locations to say, ‘My pleasure,'” Goodson said.
The restaurant will be built at 511 New Park Ave., just north of Aldi and in the shopping center also occupied by BJ’s and Home Depot. It will be 4,779 square feet, constructed of red brick, with indoor dining for 126 and outdoor seating for 18 on a patio surrounded by a low brick wall that will encourage pedestrian movement in front of the site.
The property is located in an industrial zone and is part of a Special Development District. It will include a two-lane drive-thru, which West Hartford permits in industrial zones. After the initial application, the drive-thru was modified and will be at the rear of the building, not visible from the street.
Although it was approved by the Design Review and Advisory Commission, Chick-fil-A’s application was turned down by the Town Planning and Zoning Commission, with only three of the five members present for the 1-2 vote. “They felt fine with all aspects except the drive-thru,” Town Planner Todd Dumais told the Council.
Because of the negative recommendation from TPZ, the application required a super-majority approval of the Town Council in order to pass. Deputy Mayor Shari Cantor said she spoke with the TPZ to understand their reasons for the vote, because she doesn’t take overruling the TPZ lightly.
The TPZ, Cantor said, actually had more of a problem with the the Cumberland Farms that is being built at the corner of New Park and Flatbush, because of the “auto-centric” nature of its street front. She said that TPZ members she spoke with agreed that Chick-fil-A would fit in with the particular quadrant in which it will be located, since BJ’s and Home Depot are likely to already be traveling by car and because the design was modified so that the drive-thru will not be visible from the street.
Goodson said that the drive-thru is an important part of Chick-fil-A’s model, comprising 50-60 percent of the business at most locations. The same hospitality extends to the drive-thru service, he said. “In bad weather, not getting out of your car is important,” he said.
Dumais said that although the goal is to promote transit-oriented development in the New Park neighborhood, in this particular case the drive-thru does not adversely impact those principles. Because of its location, and the use of a street wall, it is consistent with the Town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, Dumais said.
“I have a love-hate relationship with drive-thrus,” said Cantor. Sometimes they are the only option and they serve an important function at certain times of your life, she said. However, “They need to be in the right place and used in the right way.”
“I think that it’s another way we can serve the community – people who are challenged to get out of their cars,” said Council member Judy Casperson, who voted in favor of the application.
Council member Ben Wenograd said he was torn, but decided to vote against it because he still had concerns about the drive-thru and felt that Chick-fil-A, as well as the Cumberland Farms that is under construction, “isn’t the vision I have for that street” becoming more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. Knowing that his would be the lone dissenting vote, Wenograd said, “I do recognize that you’ll be coming, so I will share the welcome and will try to come and check it out.”
Minority Leader Denise Hall said that she hopes the fears of those who are concerned about the drive-thru will be allayed once they see it. For some people like the elderly or handicapped, “It’s not just a convenience, it really is a necessity,” she said.
Hall also said that she thinks Chick-fil-A will be a welcome addition to the community, and she has been already been impressed with the company’s hospitality when a friend was hosting a party for 50 5-year-olds that involved many special orders. “If this is the culture it clearly is working and it clearly resonated with the family that was hosting the party,” Hall said.
Council member Chris Williams said that Chick-fil-A’s beautiful building on New Park will be an anchor, and “is the start of something great there.”
Aaron Frankel, serving as zoning alternate for Mayor Scott Slifka was was absent, also voted in favor of the application.
Council member Leon Davidoff said he thinks Chick-fil-A understood what West Hartford was looking for in the modifications made to the design so that it fit with plans for a transit-oriented district. The restaurant will be a cornerstone of what he believes is an area that is a “hidden gem” in the community.
“To be able to attract businesses of your stature is something fantastic,” Davidoff said. “It’s my pleasure to say, ‘Thank you and welcome you to West Hartford.'”
Chick-fil-A currently has four other locations in Connecticut: Enfield, Wallingford, Brookfield, and at the Danbury Fair Mall.
West Hartford’s Chick-fil-A is expected to employ between 80 and 100 people. The restaurant will be open from 6:30 a.m. through 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday. All Chick-fil-A restaurants are closed on Sundays.
Construction is expected to begin this summer, with an opening planned for January 2017.
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