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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 (

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