The line stretched for blocks — manned by cops in reflective vests and corralled by orange cones — each vehicle carrying hungry customers hoping to sample a Double-Double with Animal Fries from In-N-Out’s newest Colorado location, which opened Monday.
Across the street, a steady stream of motorists encircled a Chick-fil-A, in a double-lane drive-thru to snag the Georgia-based restaurant’s fried chicken sandwiches and waffle potato fries.
“We like both,” said Joe Gonzales of Littleton, who with his wife waited 20 minutes this week to get cheeseburgers and fries from the In-N-Out drive-thru while the Chick-fil-A also did a brisk business.
Thus the stage is set in Denver’s south suburbs for a battle royale between two favorites of the fast-food fanatics, each of which regularly deploys a team of workers to take orders and process payment right from customers’ car windows.
But it could also spell traffic management problems for this fast-growing city, and the age-old problem of businesses who fear their customers will be elbowed out by hordes of chicken and burger devotees.
“What a zoo,” a woman said to the manager of Kirkland’s, as she entered the home goods store across the street from the In-N-Out. “I feel sorry for you guys. All of that for a hamburger and fries.”
Dea King, Kirkland’s manager, said she can only hope that things calm down once the novelty of Colorado’s third In-N-Out location wears off.
“I’m hoping it brings business to my store eventually — but it isn’t right now,” she said, as someone stood outside her nearly empty business to warn In-N-Out customers not to park in her lot.
That the two fast-food eateries attract large numbers of diners on the go is no secret. A 2019 survey from Market Force Information put Chick-fil-A in the top spot for chicken quick-service restaurants and In-N-Out in first place in the burger category. Chick-fil-A also scored highest overall among fast-food restaurants, a title formerly held by In-And-Out.
When In-N-Out announced more than a year ago it would build a restaurant just west of Park Meadows Mall, it came with a nearly 250-page traffic report and the company saying it needed a 26-vehicle-capacity drive-thru to handle anticipated demand.
The burger chain’s Colorado debut in Aurora in November created a 14-hour backup.
In-N-Out has faced issues elsewhere with its drive-thru volume. In Rancho Mirage, Calif., the company was sued by residents trying to stop the construction of a new store there. They claimed it would not only bring increased traffic to the desert community but idling vehicles filled with people waiting for burgers and fries would degrade the city’s air quality.
Chick-fil-A has faced its own challenges trying to manage its hungry customer base. Business owners in Texas, Ohio and New Jersey filed separate lawsuits in 2020 against the fried chicken giant, claiming its long drive-thru lines impeded access to their businesses.
In the New Jersey case, a judge last November ordered the temporary closure of Chick-fil-A’s drive-thru in Union after an adjacent restaurant complained that the frenzied fried chicken traffic was blocking its customers, according to NJ.com.
A spokesman for Chick-fil-A told The Denver Post that the pandemic has resulted in larger volumes of customers at the drive-thru window.
“The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in mass dining room closures and increased activity in drive-thrus … and we certainly experienced that shift at Chick-fil-A and worked quickly to modify our service processes practically overnight,” he wrote in an email.
Its Lone Tree store, which opened nearly 25 years ago, gained a second drive-thru lane last month to handle the additional volume.
“We want to be good neighbors in the communities we serve,” Ward said.
In-N-Out declined to respond to a request for comment.
Lone Tree Public Works Director Justin Schmitz commended both companies for being “incredibly good at moving people through very quickly,” and that In-N-Out paid to add lanes on Westview and Parkland roads to ease traffic flow.
But the city will be watching to see how things go once the delirium of In-N-Out’s opening week is over.
“We are fully committed to making sure all the businesses along Westview Road maintain full access (to their parking lots),” he said.
Aurora may be the crystal ball Lone Tree needs. Its In-N-Out is also located next to a Chick-fil-A. The city’s traffic manager, Carlie Campuzano, said because the eateries are separated by a side street, drive-thru traffic from each tends to enter and exit from different locations.
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“Now that the opening week/month volumes have died down, queues for In-N-Out are mostly contained on site using the parking lot space,” she said. “The two restaurants don’t seem to be impacting each other much.”
That’s good news for Angela Eyer, who cuts and styles hair at Phenix Salon Suites, which is located across Westview Road from the Lone Tree In-N-Out. Her business was already hammered by government-ordered shutdowns of hair salons earlier in the pandemic.
“Obviously, with this traffic, our clients may not make it to their appointments on time and that’s a huge concern in our industry,” she said.
Eyer’s offering a 20% discount to customers through the end of March to compensate them for the inconvenience. And she’s going to ride the burger joint’s wave as best she can, with an “In-N-Out Blowout and Manicure Special” to capture any fast-food fanatics looking for a trim.