Traffic backup for Chick Fil A in Santa Barbara
Cars block the right-hand lane of Upper State Street waiting to enter the Chick-fil-A parking lot and drive-thru. Traffic issues have plagued the Santa Barbara location since it opened in 2013.  (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

In a quintessential Santa Barbara problem, the Upper State Street Chick-fil-A  is still sparking drama in the San Roque neighborhood for its popularity, and the traffic issues that come with it.

It’s such a mouth-watering attraction that vehicles headed to the drive-thru often back up into the street, with idling cars blocking the right-hand lane, sometimes five, six or more deep.

“It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it puts my life at risk,” said Larry Bickford, an optometrist who rides his bicycle from his San Roque home to his office every morning, and then during lunch and back home about six in the evening. 

And he’s not alone in his concerns. 

Neighborhood social networking group Nextdoor recently blew up with posts by residents concerned about the traffic backup caused by the line of vehicles waiting to enter the fast food restaurant lot. 

Some suggested removing the drive-thru, which they saw as the obvious cause of the issue. 

“Just a reminder, this is not about the food (obviously a lot of folks like it!) or the company’s politics. It is about traffic safety and an expectation that the current situation will be addressed before someone is hurt,” one resident wrote. 

Rob Dayton, Santa Barbara’s transportation planning and parking manager, said the traffic backup is “a congestion and safety issue,” for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists, but the problem is complicated. 

“There isn’t much we can do,” Dayton said. “They have made some changes, but it’s been a longstanding issue.”

The Chick-fil-A at 3707 State St. opened to much fanfare and controversy in 2013. 

While the restaurants are franchised, the corporate Chick-fil-A President/CEO Dan Cathy said in a 2012 interview that he opposed same-sex marriage, and the corporation has donated millions of dollars to anti-LGBTQ organizations.

At the time the restaurant was readying to open in Santa Barbara, some members of the city’s Architectural Board of Review abstained from voting on elements of the building design when it went before the panel because their personal views conflicted with the company’s.

Congestion was an issue from the very beginning, with city staff saying they hoped the traffic backups would go away within a few weeks of the opening. 

City Councilman Eric Friedman agreed with Dayton that the problem isn’t likely to go away.

“We are in an unfortunate predicament because it is a legal nonconforming use,” Friedman said. “If it were permitted today we wouldn’t have permitted a drive-thru. We’re trying to come up with solutions that will address the problem. We’re trying all the options that are on the table.”

Friedman said he has heard from constituents about the traffic backup, has visited with store management and observed the site. 

“I have never eaten there,” Friedman said. “I do they hear they make a good chicken sandwich.”

The local Chick-fil-A operator says she knows about the traffic issue and is working on it.  

“We do recognize there are some traffic concerns at our restaurant, and we have been working diligently with our restaurant team and the city of Santa Barbara to manage traffic around the site,” said Carol Ruiz, franchise operator for the Santa Barbara Chick-fil-A, in a statement.

“We frequently implement ‘face-to-face’ ordering in the drive-thru to help move guests through more quickly and efficiently, and we recently installed and implemented curb-side delivery to expedite this process,” she added.

“This year, our restaurant introduced drive-thru mobile ordering so that guests can order and pay for their food ahead of time. We’ve installed traffic cones and a ‘No Left Turn’ sign and have re-striped the parking lot to better manage the flow of traffic onsite at our restaurant.”

The city no longer permits drive-thru restaurants, but Chick-fil-A moved into the spot previously occupied by Burger King, which already had a drive-thru with legal, nonconforming status. 

What that means is, if the company tried to make too many structural changes to the property to reduce the cars spilling out into the street, it could trigger a review of its drive-thru status. 

Bickford said he has only eaten at the restaurant once — to get ice cream — because he’s a vegetarian.

“There’s nothing on their menu I would eat,” he said. “But obviously people like the place. I just want to get from point A to point B without getting stuck.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.