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Illustration by Bob AulA particular brand of cheery, glassy-eyed Christianity infiltrates everyone and everything at Chick-fil-A in Irvine, more overt than the Bible-verse references hidden on drink-cup bottoms and food wrappers you eventually discover at In-N-Out Burger. All Chick-fil-A restaurants close down for Sundays, the Sabbath Day, in accordance with the Fourth Commandment. The toys given away in the kid's combo meals have included Book of Virtues cassette tapes from the Bill Bennett Gambling Empire, as well as materials from Adventures in Odyssey, a God-centric cartoon series produced by far-right Christian fundies Focus on the Family. Christian music pipes in over your heads while you eat: the nauseating, squishy, marshmallow-y, Michael W. Smith kind. And, in a truly Ned Flanders moment, we're sitting there eating one day when a manager loudly barks out over the dining area, "IS EVERYBODY HAPPY!!?"—to which all the employees respond with "YES, WE ARE! H-A-P-P-Y!" Even the Moonies aren't this well-organized.
Chick-fil-A is the latest outpost of an Atlanta-based fast-food chain with more than 1,100 outlets limited primarily to the Bible Belt. Saturated fat, grease, cholesterol, sugar and sodium—the new USDA food pyramid—is on the menu, delivered in the form of fried chicken sandwiches, chicken strips, chicken nuggets, waffle fries, soups, chicken salads, sodas, cheesecake and breakfast biscuits. They also weirdly claim to have invented the chicken sandwich—as if no one had ever thought of putting a bird between two slices of bread before.
Most items cost less than $5, but the side of Jesus is on the house courtesy of founder S. Truett Cathy, an 82-year-old Southern Baptist praised throughout evangelical circles as a born-again Kroc. In a self-help guide for Christian businessmen, Cathy was once asked how many restaurants he owns, to which he replied, "I don't own any. I manage them for God. He gives me them to take care of. I give him 10 percent, and He gives me 90 percent of the profits." Judging by the cuisine, God wants to see His flock in person, pretty damn quick.
At least Cathy tries to replicate a heavenly atmosphere as a preview of sorts. Besides the aforementioned music and cants, Chick-fil-A's new Irvine outlet also features large poster boards extolling Chick-fil-A's assorted humanitarian causes—youth scholarships, foster-home operations, all worthy of genuine praise. The people working the counter take food orders with unnatural, overly friendly chirps to their voices, as if they were working in a boiler-room operation for a time-share. I predict this will change with time: I visited an older Chick-fil-A in Augusta, Georgia, where the employees projected the same my-job-sucks-and-I-want-to-die aura that accompanies fast-food workers the world over.
Like any church, Chick-fil-A already boasts a devoted following. The Orange County Register reported that people camped outside the Irvine location the night before Chick-fil-A's Feb. 5 grand opening, hoping to be one of the first 100 customers and thus win a year's worth of free combo meals. People haven't been this freakishly insane for new food choices around here since the La Habra Krispy Kreme—itself an export of the Deep South—opened its doors in 1999. But one question remains, a question even the most even-keeled theologian will have a hard time answering: Why?
Attribute it to the power of proselytizing. Leveraging faith, family, fortune and fat, the Chick-fil-A marketing department has done a number on the minds of the Dubya Nation. Food that has all the character of a Swanson's frozen dinner is, thanks to marketing, spectacular/amazing/phenomenal—a miracle on the level of transubstantiation. But it's really nothing better than an average McNugget. It's fast-food chicken, nothing more or less: more rubbery than any other bird I've dug teeth into and less tasty. The batter with which Chick-fil-A fries their chicken is a poor pastor's version of KFC's Original Recipe. Chick-fil-A's waffle-cut fries are impressively bland—the kind offered at so many other chains, only without the cumbersome taste. And the chicken strips aren't really strips as much as chunkier versions of their chicken nuggets.
Surely, God could do better than this. And He has—it's called the La Palma Chicken Pie Shop.
CHICK-FIL-A, 13490 JAMBOREE RD., IRVINE, (714) 730-9100. OPEN MON.-SAT., 6:30 A.M.-10 P.M. NO ALCOHOL, JESUS TURNING WATER INTO WINE NOTWITHSTANDING. DINNER FOR TWO, $10-$15, FOOD ONLY. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.