Chick-fil-A going to Chicago

Chick-fil-A ain't just for the South, y'all.

The Atlanta-based chain, known for its chicken sandwiches, shakes and poor-spelling cows, is expanding to the outskirts of Chicago, a place where "howdy, y'all!" might earn you some weird stares.

After a five-year research and evaluation period, the company has started building three stand-alone restaurants in Aurora, Orland Park and Wheaton, Ill. It said fans had implored the company to come to Chicago with Facebook fan pages and YouTube videos.

Chicago has "been on our radar screen for quite some time," said Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A's president and chief operating officer. For a few years, however, Chicago had to stay on the back burner as Chick-fil-A aggressively expanded in Southern California.

"We’ve been trying to listen to our customers," Cathy said. "They’re saying, ‘We want a Chick-fil-A up here in Chicago.' "

Now, Chicago will be a major point of emphasis. In addition to the three locations set to open this year, Chick-fil-A plans to open up to six more restaurants throughout the Chicago area in 2011. That would be a healthy chunk of its overall annual restaurant growth, which averages about 75 new stores per year.

In its 43 years in business, privately held Chick-fil-A has spread from one location in Atlanta’s Greenbriar Mall to nearly 1,500 locations in 38 states. It brought in $3.2 billion in sales last year, an 8.6 percent overall increase. But Chick-fil-A executives say the company is slow and deliberate in opening restaurants.

Still, Chick-fil-A is well aware that it lacks a major presence in some metropolitan areas, such as Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Portland, Ore., Seattle and San Francisco.

In recent years, the company has expanded in big markets such as Southern California, Kansas City and Phoenix. The company still has more stores in the South than in Yankeeland -- with none in Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island or Vermont -- but some of its best performance is outside its home base. Its biggest growth is around Los Angeles, and its highest sales per store are around Baltimore.

Now, with the new footprint in Chicago, Chick-fil-A is "executing the next part of the plan," Cathy said.