By Aaron Elstein
The busiest place in town during lunch hour is the Chick-fil-A at the corner of West 37th Street and Sixth Avenue, where a fried chicken sandwich is sold every six seconds. To keep the frenzy from turning into a free-for-all, staffers are trained to be scrupulously polite. “I always ask them, ‘Did you bring your smile to work today?'” said the restaurant’s owner, Oscar Fittipaldi, who opened the Atlanta-based chain’s first standalone New York outpost two years ago.
The Garment District franchise sells more than 3,000 sandwiches a day, often with a side of waffle fries, and generates about $13 million in revenue, Crain’s estimated based on data from Fittipaldi. That means it sees the same revenue as Balthazar, the chic SoHo brasserie where the average check is $70, nearly seven times a typical Chick-fil-A tab.
The company wouldn’t comment on Fittipaldi’s revenue, but his success is clearly drawing a slew of followers. Chick-fil-A has plans to open roughly 12 more restaurants in the city, starting next year with a 5-story, 12,000-square-foot emporium in the Financial District. In September Taco Bell announced plans to triple its current 25-store city footprint, and Five Guys, which has grown to about 20 restaurants here since 2009, will soon be opening another one near Fittipaldi’s Chick-fil-A.
New York City is quickly becoming the capital of fast-food nation. More chains are moving in to replace diners and other independent restaurants forced out by relentlessly rising rents. Although many chains have broadened their menus and are experimenting with fast-casual dining, the bread and butter for most remains fried meat and a hefty soft drink.
“Fast-food chains used to draw a skull and crossbones around New York when they were looking for places to expand,” said Gary Occhiogrosso, who runs consulting firm Franchise Growth Solutions. “Now they all want to be here.”
In 2008 the Center for an Urban Future began tracking the growth of local chain retailers and restaurants, and counted about 5,400 city locations. By last year the figure had grown by more than a third, to 7,300. What struck Executive Director Jonathan Bowles was that one sector was responsible.
“All the growth is in food,” Bowles said.
Today New York is home to 3,419 chain-restaurant locations, according to the Department of Health. Leading the march is Dunkin’ Donuts, which has 596 city stores, a 75% increase since 2008. Over the past four years, meanwhile, the number of independent restaurants has declined by 8%.
While chains still represent a minority of the city’s 26,546 restaurants and bars, their growth is startling because fast-food purveyors have been a popular punching bag for city officials for more than a quarter century. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg banned trans fats from cooking oils and forced fast-food restaurants to post calorie counts for all menu items so people could better understand the health implications of what they were eating. Earlier this year the city also required restaurants to post sodium content.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo targeted the industry with legislation raising the minimum wage for fast-food workers until it reaches $15 per hour at the end of next year. And Mayor Bill de Blasio has singled out fast-food companies, claiming they are especially exploitive of their 65,000-strong New York workforce.
“If you want an example of how the 1% have gotten wealthier on the backs of working people, here you have it: the fast-food industry,” he said last year.
So why are these restaurants growing in such a seemingly hostile environment? Turns out, the environment isn’t so hostile after all.
A record 4.4 million New Yorkers are employed, and many want something fast and cheap for lunch. Tourism has doubled in the past 20 years, to more than 60 million, and many visitors look for familiar fare to munch on. And while there appears to be a glut of fast-food restaurants across the country—which experts see as a growing threat to the industry as a whole—New York is still relatively underrepresented. According to the Department of Labor, only 2% of the city’s private-sector employees work in limited-service restaurants, compared with 4% nationally.
“There are some big opportunities for fast food in New York because foot traffic is tremendous,” said David Henkes, a senior principal at consulting firm Technomic. “For the chains, premier locations here are all about showing their colors and strength.”
Those premier locations don’t come cheap, but fast-food joints are well-positioned to pay the rent because many of the busiest locations are company-owned or controlled by large operators. The city’s leading Wendy’s franchisee, for example, is The Briad Group, a New Jersey–based firm with 21 locations in the five boroughs, plus about 60 TGI Fridays and at least two Hilton hotels.
Fast-food restaurants are also expanding to create more locations to distribute their food to home-delivery outfits like UberEats and Seamless, said Nick Colas, co-founder of market analysis firm Datatrek Research. “The best way to get orders quickly to people who use these services is to have restaurants scattered around the city,” he said.
That growth is not only changing city storefronts; it’s also making New York’s traffic worse. Because fast-food restaurants often have little storage space, they require frequent food deliveries, which means more trucks on the streets. Mark Solasz, a vice president at Master Purveyors, a Bronx-based firm that supplies meat to about 400 restaurants, including local chains such as burger spot J.G. Melon, said the only way he can cope with soaring demand is by deploying bigger vehicles. “We’re sometimes doing three deliveries a day,” he said. Last month the mayor responded to the growing crush by announcing a pilot program banning deliveries on the city’s most congested streets during morning and evening rush hours.
At the same time, overall restaurant-industry sales are stagnating, so the name of the game is to seize market share from rivals. The environment plays to the strength of fast-food giants with vast marketing resources and purchasing power. And it helps explain why share prices of McDonald’s and the company that owns Burger King and Popeyes are up 53% and 49%, respectively, over the past 12 months.
In addition, steakhouses catering to the expense-account set have struggled: Del Frisco’s stock is down 2%. “Momentum is really on the side of quick-service restaurants,” Henkes said.
Before the Big Mac
Fast food came to New York relatively late. The first McDonald’s in Manhattan, at the corner of West 96th Street and Broadway, did not open until 1972, seven years after Wall Street bankers took the company public. The response was rapturous.
“A rush of pleasure surges through my body as it makes contact with my tongue,” a Village Voice reporter wrote. “The ecstasy is complete as I swallow the first bite of a Big Mac.”
The thrill didn’t last. In 1974 McDonald’s attempt to open an Upper East Side location was greeted by a group called the Friends of 65th Street, who gathered 15,000 signatures demanding the Golden Arches stay out. The New York Times wrote a disapproving editorial, and McDonald’s slunk away. “For the first time, we were on the defensive,” an executive said, according to John Love’s book, McDonald’s: Behind the Arches.
That was just the beginning of fast-food’s woes in New York. In 1986 McDonald’s agreed to begin disclosing nutritional information after state Attorney General Robert Abrams began investigating how the company marketed its McNuggets. Burger King followed in 1991, under pressure from the Dinkins administration’s Consumer Affairs commissioner, Mark Green. The 2004 movie Super Size Me also caused a big stir by documenting how filmmaker Morgan Spurlock gained 24 pounds after exclusively eating at McDonald’s for a month.
Fast food has long been linked to ill health. But it looks as if calorie postings are not doing much to stem demand. In a study last year, researchers at New York University found that only about 1 in 12 customers chose a healthier option after seeing calorie counts on fast-food menus.
“Dietary changes are more difficult than anything we’ve tackled,” said Beth Weitzman, an NYU professor of public health and policy. “We all really struggle to find what’s right.”
But even as scores of Burger Kings and McDonald’s set up shop in the city, other chains decided coming here wasn’t worth the bother, especially since it was tough to find enough space to accommodate their restaurants’ cookie-cutter formats.
“New York, especially Manhattan, was seen as just too hard,” recalled Lisa Oak, a former executive in charge of real estate at Subway.
But in the 1990s, the sandwich chain took a leap and moved into Manhattan even though it meant squeezing into storefronts as small as 300 square feet. There are now around 140 Subways in Manhattan, plus about another 300 throughout the rest of the city.
“People who lived in the suburbs and worked in the city were waiting for us,” Oak said.
In short order the rush was on, led by upstarts challenging the established chains. In 2003 Chipotle Mexican Grill debuted in Manhattan, and the next year restaurateur Danny Meyer opened the first Shake Shack, in Madison Square Park. In recent years the old warhorses have counterattacked. The number of Popeyes in the city has grown by 60% in less than a decade, to 90. Arby’s, which opened its first New York location in 1980, in Penn Station, expanded into Brooklyn in 2010, and a spokesman said, “We believe Manhattan and the boroughs are prime for future development.” The Checkers burger chain has doubled its footprint in the city over the past five years, according to Bowles’ research, to 37 locations.
Meanwhile, some independent restaurateurs have learned that the best way to fight the big chains is to start their own.
Made to order
In 2012 Danny Hodak opened Taboonette, a fast-food offshoot of Taboon, the full-service restaurant he runs in Hell’s Kitchen. Inspiration came from listening in his car to McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc’s memoir, Grinding It Out.
“I loved systems and finding procedures that solved problems,” Hodak said.
Today Taboonette does great business from its location near Union Square because the kitchen can serve up restaurant-quality kebabs or a falafel dish with a side of rice, salad and a Yemeni hot sauce called zhug in just three minutes. It costs about $13, which is considerably more than what most fast-food outfits charge for meals. With his 900-square-foot space generating $1.8 million in revenue, Hodak plans to start looking for franchisees to spread his concept around Manhattan.
“I feel a real sense of urgency because so much competition is coming,” he said.
Indeed, many fast-food giants are trying to mimic Hodak’s success and capitalize on changing tastes by offering high-end fast food. Several of the Taco Bell restaurants coming to the city will have a cantina format, in which alcohol might be served and diners will be invited to linger. For his part, Hodak plans to take a page from the big players and install a kiosk to take customer orders in a bid to make lines move faster.
Across the city, fast-food restaurateurs are installing automated kiosks at a rapid rate to replace human order-takers, whose wages are rising. At Shake Shack’s 19th and newest location in the city, on Astor Place, customers can place orders only via kiosks, though employees, dubbed hospitality champs, are on-site to help tech-challenged diners use the devices. Automation explains why employment growth at fast-food places has been cut in half over the past year and is running two-thirds below its 2011 rate, according to state Labor Department data.
“While new limited-service restaurants continue to open in the city,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, “employment growth in the sector has increased at a much slower pace since New York started its minimum-wage experiment.”
Demand for kiosks means more work for Alejandro Swaby, director of sales at tech-services firm Cervion Systems. He charges $149 a month to rent a kiosk—”Equal to 15 sandwiches,” he said—and believes the devices have potential beyond fast food. He is talking to full-service restaurants about installing them at their bars to make it easier for diners to order a snack while waiting for a table. Swaby said he much prefers the pizza at Campania on his native Staten Island to any chain’s and sees kiosks as a way to help independent operators maximize profits as fast-food giants muscle in.
“I’m not anti-employee at all,” he said, “I’m pro–independent restaurant.”
The rising minimum wage is also opening doors for Avi Sharon, who runs a produce wholesaler in Long Island City called Adams Apple. After selling commercial time on Howard Stern’s radio show and cars in California, Sharon took over his father’s business serving mom-and-pop stores three years ago and invested $200,000 in machinery that peels onions, dices tomatoes and cuts carrots. He now supplies such fast-food restaurants as Wok to Walk and Maoz Vegetarian, a Mediterranean-themed chain.
“With the minimum wage going up, I figure there’s no way a fast-food place can sell a burger for $2.99 unless they hire someone like us,” said Sharon, who is planning to buy another $400,000 worth of equipment.
Mike Abrusci, 29, is a native suburbanite who likes stopping by the nearest Taco Bell after gigs at comedy clubs before heading to his home in Ridgewood, Queens.
On a recent afternoon at the Union Square location, Abrusci ordered a Crunchwrap Supreme filled with guacamole and potatoes, which he described as “a quesadilla on steroids,” and a 7-Layer Burrito for later. His bill rang up to $14.
Growing up in Central Islip, Long Island, Abrusci and his buddies would hang out at Taco Bell after school. He loves the city and its variety of restaurants, but fast food fits his budget, and hitting the familiar chains has proved reassuring.
“One day I was feeling anxious about being in the city. I went to a Target, walked around and felt better,” he said. “Taco Bell does the same thing for me.”