Changing Times, Chicken, and the Blessings of Constancy

In 1946, S. Truett Cathy, took out a small loan and opened a restaurant in Hapeville, GA. The humble establishment had four tables and ten counter seats. Cathy named it, aptly, the Dwarf Grill. Full of optimism and ambition, if not experience, Cathy experimented with different ways to make flavorful chicken in short order, and his business steadily grew by serving up quality food in a friendly atmosphere – it wasn’t uncommon to find one of his three children mingling with the customers – 24 hours a day, six days a week.

Cathy refined his culinary skills, and by 1963, he’d developed the recipe for what would later become known as the Chick-fil-A sandwich. Chick-fil-A, Inc., was launched the following year and soon began to pioneer the in-mall fast food market where the Chick-fil-A sandwich became a favorite of hungry shoppers.

The restaurant chain thrived. By the late 1970s, annual sales topped $100 million. Chik-fil-A was a textbook American success story.

Crisis
Then came a crisis. The deep recession of the early 1980s brought a sharp drop in revenue, and that, combined with soaring chicken prices and heavy debt (with interest rates hovering around 21 percent), landed Chick-fil-A in economic dire straits.

In 1982, Cathy took his top managers on a retreat to strategize. At issue: whether to maintain Chick-fil-A’s lifelong practice of closing on Sundays or to consider opening up on Sundays to take advantage of weekend shopping traffic. The move would add an estimated 16 percent to current revenues, quite possibly the difference between corporate survival and bankruptcy. Furthermore, the policy had at times created difficulty securing mall contracts; the change could open up avenues that had previously been closed. As a matter of mere economics, the decision was a no-brainer.

But there had always been more to Cathy’s decision-making than the merely economic. Truett Cathy was a devout Christian. From the day he opened the Dwarf Grill, he had cared for his employees and their needs (and, not coincidentally, enjoyed the lowest turnover rate in the industry). He believed that he honored God by honoring his employees and customers. His commitment to Sunday closure had been instituted in keeping with the principle of honoring God first, both in personal life and in business. And it honored his employees by freeing them up to rest, to be with their families, and to attend worship services if they so chose.

At A Crossroads
Now the company was at a crossroads. Would it adjust to the times, do what most of its competition had been doing for years, and open for business on Sundays to get through the crisis? Or would it maintain the policy Cathy had always believed was the God-honoring course, knowing it very well could end in business failure?

At bottom, Cathy had to decide whether his organization’s culture would be directed by God’s compass or a by gauge of human making. He chose the former and decided to serve God first, letting the remaining chips fall where they may. On that retreat, Cathy rededicated the business to God and, in conjunction with his management team, crafted a new corporate mission statement:

“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.”

The company survived. Through the 1980s and 90s, it added innovative menu items, introduced three delightfully endearing, semi-literate cows that mutely invited us to “Eat Mor Chikin,” and sales grew sufficiently to maintain the Sunday closure and weather the crisis.

There’s an interesting twist at the end of this story too. Not only has Chick-fil-A faithfully served its employees and customers for over half a century now. It also, ironically, served its competitors in the malls during that steep recession. “Some of our competitors in the malls tell me,” Cathy said much later, “that they wouldn’t have made it if we didn’t close on Sundays.”

Well, whaddya know? Faithfulness and honoring God first serves everyone.

I think I’ll Eat Mor Chikin.