After nearly 15 months of only offering drive-thru and pickup services, Chick-fil-A restaurants across Hall County are reopening their doors for in-person dining.
Frank Harney, operator of the Stonebridge Village Chick-fil-A in Flowery Branch, said by Oct. 1, 2021, all the chain’s locations are expected to reopen for dine-in. So far, he said around 1,500 out of the nearly 2,700 fast food restaurants in the nation have done so.
Both the Stonebridge Village Chick-fil-A and several others in Hall reopened their dining areas within the past two weeks. Harney said the company’s corporate office gave operators the choice to make the decision locally.
Instead of quickly shifting from takeout to dine-in, Harney said he and other franchisees waited for certain pieces to fall in place.
“The driver for me is I don’t want my employees to face anything that’s not safe,” he said. “ … I didn’t want to open until my employees felt comfortable.”
Harney said he also chose to hold off on opening the dining area to better gauge the feelings of his customers. As more people became vaccinated for COVID-19 and regulars consistently expressed their desire to eat inside the fast food restaurant, the Chick-fil-A operator said he felt compelled to make the shift.
Bob Swoszowski, owner of 21 McDonald’s restaurants in Northeast Georgia, said he reopened his locations for in-person dining in November 2020. Other fast food restaurants in Hall like Wendy’s and Burger King followed the same route, reopening their doors several months ago.
Swoszowski said sales for his McDonald’s sites got back on track in July 2020, and this summer his numbers are “considerably above” last year’s totals.
“We’ve been very blessed to keep our core customers and core crew,” Swoszowski said. “We’re back to business as normal, and I could not be happier.”
Harney said despite the pandemic, his sales at Chick-fil-A increased by 17% last year, and the chain’s other locations in Hall experienced similar growth. He credits this positive outcome to Chick-fil-A’s efficient drive-thru system and mobile app.
Harney said the Chick-fil-A One app, which launched around 10 years ago, experienced a huge uptick in users during the pandemic. The platform allows customers to order food for pickup via drive-thru, curbside and now inside. People are rewarded with points based on their activity on the app, and those points are redeemable for menu items.
When Harney began operating his Chick-fil-A store 23 years ago, he said 60% of his customers sat down in the restaurant to eat. In 2019, he said only 20% opted for dine-in.
With the reopening of his dining space, Harney said he expected those numbers to go back. However, this wasn’t the case.
“We’re at 7% back in right now for dine-in,” he said. “Will we ever go back to 20%? My guess is no. They love mobile orders and catering orders. Even though they may feel safe, they just habitually got used to these other channels of ordering.”
Harney said leading up to last month, many customers asked him to allow eating inside the restaurant. Despite their requests, he said many still prefer taking their food home or even eating in their cars in the parking lot.
Harney said this outcome reminds him of the quote, “The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”
“It just shows the power of habit,” Harney said.