Prior to his death in 2014, Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy used to regularly remind the operators of his stores that they weren’t in the chicken business – they were in the people business and just happened to be selling chicken.
Walk into any of the Atlanta-based company’s 2,300 outlets and it’s clear that Cathy’s vision remains its North Star. Though the food is really good – it’s the company’s consistently superior customer service that turns ordinary diners into what they like to call their “raving fans.”
As a kid, I don’t think I knew much about Chick-fil-A. Primarily a Southern eatery in its early years, my Long Island childhood’s fast-food choices were plentiful if not plain and predictable – McDonald’s, Burger King, Roy Rogers, Nathan’s and Friendly’s, to name just a few.
But a little over 15 years ago, I started to learn quite a bit about the company after striking up a friendship with a guy named Mark Hufford. A co-worker and a former pharmaceutical drug representative, Mark joined our lunchtime running group shortly after his arrival in town. Over the miles, we’d swap stories, share goals and dreams and encourage one another in our respective marriages and careers.
A “hail fellow, well met” kind of guy, Mark regularly talked about his admiration for Chick-fil-A, why their corporate culture was different and how his big dream was to one day operate one of their stores.
Unlike the typical franchise pay-for-play model, winning the privilege of running a Chick-fil-A restaurant is highly competitive – and entirely controlled by the corporate offices in Atlanta. They don’t franchise their stores – people are selected to operate them and, in turn, share the profits with corporate. On average, operators keep as profit approximately ten percent of gross sales – not bad for a typical store that can pull in between $2 million and $5 million a year – all by being open just six days a week.
That’s a lot of chicken sandwiches.
At the time, Mark told us about his dream, the company was receiving well over 20,000 “Expressions of Interest” – a.k.a. applications for stores, each year. After a rigorous interview and selection process, company executives would award between just 50 and 60 new operator licenses. Today, the chain receives over 60,000 applications every 12 months and yet still selects only between 75 and 80 of them – an acceptance rate of less than one percent.
So, to put it mildly, Mark’s odds were long. A minor league baseball player is ten times more likely to make the Major Leagues than the average Chick-fil-A operator applicant is to receive his own store.
Yet, Mark did what many of us never do – he stopped talking about his dream and decided to do something that would bring him one step closer to helping make it come true. He set up an appointment with Rob Taylor, a local Chick-fil-A operator in Colorado Springs, and asked for his advice.
Taylor told him the only way he’d have a legitimate chance was if he had some actual Chick-fil-A experience. The company likes to hire from within, promote trusted and proven talent. But how could Mark support a wife and young daughter on just $8 an hour?
Recognizing Mark’s ambition, Taylor offered to hire him part-time. Along with working Saturdays, he’d be given a few evening shifts each week. For the next few years, Mark would hustle out of the office at 5 p.m., change out of his suit in the bathroom and into his Chick-fil-A uniform. He’d start washing dishes, breading chicken, serving food, even cleaning restrooms.
At first, it was a little embarrassing for Mark – friends and co-workers from his other job would spot him in the drive-thru window or see him tossing trash into the dumpster. They wondered if something was wrong if he had fallen on hard times. Of course, everything was very right – and Mark would enthusiastically share his long-term goal with them if given the chance.
Mark was eventually awarded his own Chick-fil-A store, opening up a brand-new location in Bentonville, Arkansas, the hometown headquarters of Walmart. He just celebrated his 11th anniversary this past April 10 and loves it more than he did the first day of its operation.
“Everybody has to answer the ‘Why’ question,” he told me. “What gets you out of bed in the morning? What gets me out is a desire to serve our customers and the people that work for me. I want to develop better leaders. I want to see in them what they may not see in themselves.”
I think about Mark’s story a lot, especially as I wrestle with my own dreams and aspirations. What am I doing today in order to bring me one step closer to success tomorrow?
But I also think about Chick-fil-A, a company rooted in the classic conviction that it’s possible to be both honest and successful – and all at the same time.
“Each person’s destiny is not a matter of chance,” said Truett Cathy. “It’s a matter of choice. It’s determined by what we say, what we do, and whom we trust.”
The triumph of Chick-fil-A is a reminder to me that true success in life comes back to the strength and health of our relationships.
From the manager of the company’s first restaurant in Hapeville, Georgia, who used to mail out handwritten notes and birthday cards to its 400 customers – to Rob Taylor’s willingness to give my friend a chance to work his way up the ladder, the common denominator is knowing not only how to get along with people – but how to lift others up and help bring the best out of them.
Mark was successful because another operator believed and invested in him, and now he’s investing in others, both in his restaurant and in the Bentonville community where he’s organized a separate charitable organization to help end hunger.
In the end, “Pay it forward” isn’t just a helpful philosophy – it’s a universal law of the good life – and it’s alive and well at Chick-fil-A.