Chick-fil-A plans urban restaurants

Chick-fil-A is taking its cows to the big city.

The sandwich and milkshake chain plans to start adding urban locations in three cities as a first step toward making a mark in places where other fast-food competitors such as McDonald's and KFC have already grabbed sizable leads.

Executives say the locations will help the company learn how to to set up its counters, kitchens and staff to handle huge numbers of walk-in customers. It could even learn how to run a sharper delivery service, which is offered at about 5 percent of its restaurants.

The College Park-based chain's 1,500th store, opening Thursday, is about two blocks from the Coliseum in downtown Los Angeles, adjacent to the University of Southern California. Urban stores also are planned for Chicago and Washington, D.C. The company has fewer than two dozen "in-line" stores -- part of an urban block as opposed to stand-alone stores or food courts.

"It's going to be growing in importance," said Steve Robinson, Chick-fil-A’s senior vice president of marketing. "It's still a learning frontier for us. We need to learn. The markets that we want to grow in, whether Chicago or D.C. or Southern California, we need to know how to do this."

Chick-fil-A will open its first three Chicagoland-area restaurants in Aurora, Orland Park and Wheaton over the next three months and also plans to increase its St. Louis presence in 2011. No urban stores are planned in Atlanta so far.

Most of Chick-fil-A's growth since the 1980s has been at free-standing stores. The company plans to open 78 new restaurants this year, and averages about 70. Fewer than 10 annual openings will be city block locations, Robinson said.

"It's still experimental," he said. "Learning how to fly."

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