The Origins of Cult-Favorite Fast Food Restaurants: Chick-fil-A
The Dwarf Grill became an industry giant by perfecting just one dish.
Privately held and run over five decades by three generations of family, Chick-fil-A, with its nearly 1,500 locations in 38 states and Washington D.C., has grown to become one of the most successful fast food chicken franchises in the U.S., second only to KFC (YUM). Its corporate headquarters, located in College Park, Georgia, houses over 600 employees in a five-story office building set among 75 acres of lush hardwood forest.
But Cathy had to climb a lot of rungs in the fast food ladder to boost Chick-fil-A to the top.
Cathy was born in 1921 and raised in Atlanta, Georgia with six brothers and sisters. By age 8, Cathy had his first job selling soft drinks and at 14, he had developed his “people first” business philosophy delivering the Atlanta Journal newspaper to residents of America’s first public housing project, Atlanta’s Techwood Homes.
Upon completing high school, Cathy was drafted into the U.S. Army and served until his discharge in 1945. The following year, he and his brother, Ben, opened a roadside restaurant in the south-Atlanta suburb of Hapeville. Named for its diminutive size with room to accommodate only ten stools and four tables, the Dwarf Grill, later the Dwarf House, was the birthplace of what would become Chick-fil-A’s signature Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich.
In the early 1960s, Cathy began his endeavor into the boneless chicken breast sandwich concept. He experimented with breading and seasonings and, in researching a quick serve method, he came upon the idea of pressure cooking in peanut oil. He served the chicken breast on a toasted, buttered bun with a single condiment: pickles, because, as it’s been rumored, pickles were the only garnish at his disposal at the time of the invention. He named it Chick-fil-A, a play on “chicken fillet” with an A for “top quality.”
By 1963, Cathy had trademarked Chick-fil-A and the following year, he started Chick-fil-A, Inc. with his first employee and personal assistant Brooksie Kirk who would serve the company in that capacity for 25 years. His promotional push included trade show representation with free samples of the sandwich and even getting Lady Bird Johnson to taste one during a whistle-stop visit to Georgia. In 1967, Cathy opened the first Chick-fil-A restaurant in Atlanta’s Greenbriar Mall, thus helping to spearhead the practice of restaurants doing business in shopping malls.
Chick-fil-A’s first free-standing restaurant opened in 1986 in Atlanta. By 2000, the company sales reached the $1 billion mark and the following year, the franchise celebrated its 1,000th restaurant opening. The chain has seen its most rapid expansion within the last decade with nearly a third of its locations being built around the country.
From the company’s inception, Cathy has imbued the Chick-fil-A brand with a spirit of “hard work, humility and biblical principles.” The chain’s stated corporate purpose, which is emblazoned on a plaque outside front doors of corporate headquarters, is “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.” Cathy has even penned a Five-Step Recipe for Business Success based on a “principles before profits” model that includes his closed on Sundays policy about which he stated:
“I was not so committed to financial success that I was willing to abandon my principles and priorities. One of the most visible examples of this is our decision to close on Sunday. Our decision to close on Sunday was our way of honoring God and of directing our attention to things that mattered more than our business.”
Customers responded, not only to the higher standards of quality in the fast food menu, but also to the treatment they receive by employees. "The chicken is great, but their values -- you say 'Thanks,' they say 'My pleasure,'" customer Paul Kingery of Norman, Oklahoma told ABC news at the time. "I think that's cool."
But Chick-fil-A has also angered a segment of the fast food nation, drawing criticism for giving financial support to Focus on the Family, a vehemently anti-gay rights and anti-choice organization. A Facebook protest group urges people to boycott the franchise for its alleged homophobic leanings.
Cathy hopes his people-oriented business practices will inform his legacy. “I’d like to be remembered as one who kept my priorities in the right order. We live in a changing world, but we need to be reminded that the important things have not changed, and the important things will not change if we keep our priorities in proper order.”
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