Fans of the new Chick-fil-A restaurant in Bellevue are creating backups onto I-405, overflowing into nearby parking lots and creating litter and grumpy neighbors. The city says the crush that started more than three weeks ago may not die down.
The 100 people camped out in the parking lot the night before the state’s first Chick-fil-A restaurant opened April 9 were apparently not a tipoff to Bellevue officials that they had a crowd problem on their hands.
The magnitude quickly became apparent the next day. Traffic backed up at nearby Northeast Eighth Street and 116th Avenue Northeast. It backed up onto exits from Interstate 405 — 30-minute-long backups, according to neighbors.
Eager for the signature crispy Southern-fried chicken sandwich on a soft white bun with two pickle slices, customers have overflowed the parking lot and left their cars at the Whole Foods kitty-corner across the intersection, at the corner Arco station, at the recreational marijuana store across the street.
“It’s been absolutely nuts,” said Alex Nguyen, assistant manager of Bel-Mar, the marijuana store.
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According to complaints to the city, customers have traipsed through beauty bark and ivy landscaping, darted across five-lane arterials and left their empty take-out boxes and bags strewn around the neighborhood.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Chris Dreaney, a transportation manager for the city.
“We had the impression it was going to be popular. Enthusiasm and excitement at first, then trailing off to normal levels. We’re certainly surprised that the turnout has stayed so strong,” she said.
On Thursday, Bellevue announced the latest attempt to manage traffic over the past three weeks. Off-duty Bellevue police officers paid by Chick-fil-A directed cars in and out of the restaurant parking lot and the drive-through line, until capacity was reached.
More were admitted as others left. If there wasn’t room, customers were told to circle the block.
That strategy followed three weeks of a single police officer directing traffic, lane closures, flashing electronic sign boards approaching the intersection, and for the past three days, a flashing sign on I-405 suggesting alternate exits, which, according to Bellevue police, nobody read.
What’s the draw?
Joy Adiletta, a native of Southwest Virginia, stood in line opening day (she said it wrapped around the building three times) and returned on Friday. She quickly volunteered that she isn’t a fan of the company’s politics. The Baptist corporate owners gave millions to anti-gay initiatives and causes, but following protests at stores across the country in 2012, including kiss-ins by gay couples, said they’d stay out of politics.
“They haven’t changed their views, they’ve just gotten quieter,” Adiletta said. Still, she was back for more. This was the fast food of her childhood, she explained, and recommended a nuggets meal.
“Whole chicken, hand battered with all these crispy bits that have come out of the hot peanut oil,” she said.
Further back in line, Benjamin Arai, a California native, was also visiting for the second time, despite his less-than-enthusiastic initial review.
“McDonald’s chicken sandwiches are way better,” he said.
The Bellevue franchise owner, Valerie Artis, also a California transplant, cruised through the restaurant and the parking lot outside, overseeing a staff of dozens. By far the best-dressed person on the premises, Artis wore a calf-length black jersey dress, a black-and-white checked jacket and a red scarf, perfectly cast in the role of gracious hostess.
Asked what she called the young employees walking alongside cars in the takeout line, offering menus and relaying orders back to the kitchen, she said, “Family. I call them my family.”
The city said Artis has been great to work with, offering suggestions for how to manage the crowds. Artis, in turn, says the same about the city.
“We did not expect the outpouring,” she said, despite the company’s practice with every opening around the country of offering a year’s worth of free meals to the first 100 customers.
City officials say the new flagging strategy has helped traffic flow more smoothly. But they acknowledge it’s not sustainable.
“It’s not how we want our public streets to operate,” said Dreaney, the city transportation manager.
Her best hope? Another store opened in Tacoma last week with a third scheduled for Lynnwood on May 7.
“We hope that people enjoy Chick-fil-A in Bellevue, but that fewer of them do so,” she said.