Selling chicken from a scriptural playbook
By John W. Kennedy
Dan T. Cathy, 55, likes to joke he has been working at
Chick-fil-A from the womb. He isn’t too far off the mark.
The chicken chain started by his father, S. Truett Cathy,
always has been a family business where everyone helps out. Seven years ago Dan
became president and chief operating officer of the company his father founded
four decades ago.
Dan started his chicken career at age 9 by singing songs for
customers at the original diner site, the Dwarf Grill. As a youth he performed
a number of menial tasks at that Atlanta diner: picking up trash in the parking
lot, washing dirty dishes, extracting chewing gum stuck underneath dining room
tables, filling up ketchup and mustard bottles.
When Chick-fil-A began branching out in 1967 it concentrated
on retail shopping malls. Over the years, restaurants have been added at
college campuses, hospitals and airports. Now, the majority are built as
freestanding stores. Dan says today’s consumers often are incredibly busy,
preferring to pick up food from their cars at a drive-through window rather
than going inside a time-consuming mall.
Now in its 41st year, staying relevant to an ever-changing
marketplace is a challenge for the Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, which pioneered
the boneless breast of chicken sandwich in the quick-service restaurant
industry. Chick-fil-A has added fruit and more salad entrees to its menu for a
customer base demanding healthier and more nutritional meals. Chicken, of
course, remains the staple item, with a multitude of creative preparations.
What hasn’t and won’t change are the biblical principles on
which the company is based. That includes keeping stores closed on Sundays, a
rare decision for a restaurant chain today. But Chick-fil-A insists operators
and their employees take Sundays off to be with their families, rest, and
worship God, if they so choose. Even though that decision has meant a potential
loss of 20 percent in business, the chain nevertheless has had 40 straight years
of growth, with sales exceeding $2.6 billion annually.
“Our corporate purpose for being is to glorify God by being
a faithful steward of all He has entrusted to us,” Cathy says. “Being closed on
Sunday, we think our food tastes better on Monday.”
Being a privately held corporation not beholden to
shareholders is a chief reason Chick-fil-A can remain closed on Sundays.
“We’re not answerable to a bunch of Wall Street analysts
looking for higher earnings,” Cathy says. “That pressure often causes
businesses to make short-term decisions that aren’t in the best long-term
interests of the company.”
Cathy credits the stability of the corporation’s leadership
and operators for keeping Chick-fil-A on course with its corporate purpose. The
firm has a better than 96 percent annual stability rate with its franchise
operators, and the corporate staff has an even higher retention rate.
In its management style, Cathy says the company focuses more
on living out spiritual beliefs rather than propagating them.
“We aren’t hesitant to share our Christian faith and
biblical views, and we’re thankful that in the Constitution our forefathers
made provision for religious expression, even in the workplace,” Cathy says.
“However, the most potent way of sharing our faith with others is in the
relationships we have in terms of compassion, kindness, and understanding in
helping people accomplish their dreams, hopes and ambitions.”
Chick-fil-A offers several types of enrichment opportunities
for its workers, including a $1,000 scholarship to college-bound restaurant
employees who have shown leadership, longevity with the chain, and demonstrate
school and community involvement. More than $23 million has been awarded since
the program started in 1973, resulting in Chick-fil-A scholarship recipients
attending more than 1,200 institutions.
In 1984, S. Truett and Jeannette Cathy formed the WinShape
Foundation, which provides a variety of services to support youth and marriage.
That includes operating a two-week summer camp experience for 1,800 boys and
girls every year; providing a loving, stable environment for more than 100
children in a dozen foster homes; and sponsoring retreats for couples whose
marriages need transformation.
While some companies founded on scriptural tenets have
stopped being so outspoken in order to not offend an increasingly pluralistic
society, Chick-fil-A continues to abide by the Golden Rule.
“Because Jesus Christ died for us all, that gives me the
freedom and confidence to share this message of redemption in meaningful ways,”
Cathy says. “In the complete picture of what’s going on, sharing our faith is
not only not offensive, it can be incredibly winsome and endearing to others.”
For children, Cathy also wants the meal experience to be
more than just about food. Rather than a tie-in to the latest Hollywood movie,
premiums with kids’ meals have a more positive, lasting impact with literacy or
other values. Recently, a book from the Emmy Award-winning PBS program Between
the Lions or an audiocassette from the Focus on the Family Adventures in
Odyssey series has accompanied kids’ meals. In addition to focusing on
education and character development, the giveaways are designed to foster
conversation between parents and children.
Work doesn’t consume all of Cathy’s time. Church has been a
priority ever since he made Jesus Christ his Lord and Savior at age 12.
He has been playing trumpet for 43 years, and he continues
to practice nearly every day. He plays occasionally at weddings and sporting
events, but every Sunday morning he is on the platform with the rest of the
band at New Hope Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta.
“I take the responsibility of leading people in worship
every seven days very seriously,” says Cathy. “There’s a difference between
playing the notes and playing the music. People worship when the music is
played.” Jeannette Cathy, who also played the trumpet, instilled a love of the
instrument in him as a young boy.
Another passion of Cathy’s life is instructing 12th-grade
boys in Sunday School every week. He has been a Sunday School teacher for more
than 30 years, also a discipline of his father’s for nearly half a century.
Unlike local civic organizations, Cathy believes church and Sunday School are
focused on an eternal outlook.
“It’s a joy to serve the local church,” Cathy says. “A local
church ministry that impacts the lives of children, young people and families
in a positive way is the greatest community organization we have.”
Chick-fil-A supports more than 45,000 restaurant employees
in 1,370 stores in 37 states and Washington, D.C. Cathy says putting a
franchise in every state isn’t a goal; the firm simply wants to be in markets
where it makes business sense.
With his customary zeal, S. Truett Cathy, now 87, continues
to work as chairman and chief executive officer at the conglomerate every day.
In an April ceremony in the Oval Office, Truett Cathy received the President’s
Call to Service Award for dedicating more than 4,000 hours of volunteer service
during his lifetime.
Dan doesn’t spend as much time around corporate headquarters
because there aren’t any chickens or cash registers there. While not home with
Rhonda, his wife of more than 30 years, he enjoys being with store employees
and customers. He’ll attend virtually all 70-plus openings of new Chick-fil-A
restaurants this year.
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal
Evangel and blogs at Midlife Musings (jkennedy.agblogger.org).
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