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Chick-fil-A has a problem that's out of control (and technology can't fix it)

Who could have seen this coming? But surely tech can help somehow. Can't it?
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Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributor on
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A big problem.

Screenshot by ZDNet

We've become used to technology solving most problems.

Or, at least, claiming to.

An app here, an algorithm there, and what used to be impossible now seems merely usual.

Some problems, though, can't be fixed with the wave of an iPhone and the appropriate software. 

Please look at the quandary of Chick-fil-A.

This highly popular fast-food chain has managed to find all sorts of clever ways to expand its business, while still keeping it closed on a Sunday. For religious observation rather than sports watching, you understand. 

Yet its very popularity is now proving to be something of an undoing.

Last year, the chain's CEO Dan Cathy confessed that fully 30% of Chick-fil-A customers drive away from the drive-thru because the lines are so very long.

This is an issue some fast-food chains have tried to solve by experimenting with AI ordering, spy cameras prodding employees to get the orders right, and even robots preparing meals.

Chick-fil-A has even tried building another restaurant close to the very busy ones. Even that, however, doesn't alleviate the issue.

And now there's Santa Barbara.

The quaintly prissy California town has now become so frustrated with the lines at Chick-fil-A that it may declare its Chick-fil-A a public nuisance.

As SFGate reports, the main street in Santa Barbara -- State Street -- now suffers from a monstrous line of cars, too many heading to Chick-fil-A.

Driveways are apparently being blocked. Buses can't get through. State Street is a simple, relatively narrow street, where stores and restaurants abound. 

The last time I was there, it had a nice sushi restaurant and a piano on the sidewalk for anyone to play.

But here's how serious the problem is. On a regular weekday, the city estimates traffic is stymied by between 70 and 91 minutes a day. On weekends, oh, just don't bother. It's 92 to 155 minutes.

Yes, the fried chicken can't even cross the road.

Chick-fil-A has tried it's very best to mitigate the pain. It has put humans outside to take orders. It's tried a two-lane drive-thru. It's even employed security guards who try to discourage customers from backing into the street and causing more gridlock.

Naturally, it's all now been diverted to lawyers.

Chick-fil-A's attorney Beth Collins told local news site Noozhawk that the mere idea of her client's business being called a public nuisance is appalling.

She said: "It unfairly targets one business, not on the basis of how that business is conducted, but rather on its customer popularity."

You may think she has a point. But a 150-minute traffic delay?

Collins continued: "Should the City Council erroneously declare CFA's drive-through to be a public nuisance and order the drive-through closed, such action would deprive countless Santa Barbara citizens of safe, contactless food service, and amount to an unconstitutional taking for which just compensation would be owed."

There's no veil over that threat, is there?

The franchise operator told the Santa Barbara News-Press that he's working on several solutions. None of them is technological -- sample: forcing drivers to turn right after exiting the drive-thru -- and all have encountered skepticism among some members of the council.

But why can't technology find some way to create a new peace in the pristine streets of Santa Barbara?

Would it be an idea for Chick-fil-A to work with Google Maps and Waze and offer traffic-length notifications to all drivers who wander toward the vicinity?

Perhaps something like: "You really want Chick-fil-A? Well, it's going to take you another 67 minutes to get it. Do you really need it?"

Or how about illuminated signs, far away from the actual restaurant, that offer an indication of how long the wait might be? You know, just like the signs on freeways that tell you how long it will take to get to certain exits or landmarks.

"Chick-fil-A: 97 minutes. It's not worth it, is it?"

Or perhaps even notifications on Sundays reminding people that "Today is a Chick-fil-A-Free Day. So State Street should be heavenly."?

The chicken chain would, of course, have to pay for all this. But it would be fine advertising, as well as public-spiritedness.

I fear Chick-fil-A hasn't got its tech brains fully engaged on this one.

There has to be a way. There has to be.

Technology is always undefeated. Isn't it?

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