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Don’t Chicken Out

Following Brand Purpose Off the Beaten Path to Fast-Food Success

By Hannah Landers

The paradigm of American fast-food success is symbolized by the “Golden Arches.” Ubiquitous across large metropolises and small towns alike, McDonald’s—which started off as a series of small, drive-in restaurants in California—has nearly 38,000 stores in more than 115 countries, which makes it the largest fast-food restaurant chain in the world.

While the restaurant chain dominates in the size of its footprint and number of customers served, it is surprisingly a distant second in revenue per store.

That achievement belongs to Chick-fil-A, which rakes in $4.2 million per restaurant annually, compared to McDonald’s $2.8 million—even though every Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays. Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast-food chain in America based on sales, with 2018 revenue of $10.5 billion (compared to McDonald’s $38.5 billion); this is despite the fact that Chick-fil-A has only about 2,400 U.S. locations to McDonald’s 13,900.

How did a Southern chain that eschews the ubiquitous burger in favor of chicken develop stores that out-earn McDonald’s? Where McDonald’s has a bigger menu, more name recognition worldwide, and even shorter drive-thru wait times than Chick-fil-A, the chicken chain has stubbornly stuck with its poultry-focused menu for years and has very publicly stated its dedication to embodying and upholding “Christian values” since its founding. Rather than following the playbook for fast-food success that has put a McDonald’s restaurant in nearly every corner of the country, Chick-fil-A forged its own unique path to success—and has simultaneously become America’s most beloved restaurant and its fastest-growing fast-food franchise in the process. The secret sauce is its commitment to a mission and set of values that are as old as the brand itself.

The Chick-fil-A sandwich was first dished up in 1946 by Truett Cathy at the Dwarf Grill, nestled in the small town of Hapeville, Georgia, but the brand as it exists today did not come together until the early 1980s. Chick-fil-A was in a precarious position at the time: The brand’s restaurants were largely confined to shopping malls, which were not growing as they once had, and the company’s financial resources had been depleted by the construction of its new headquarters in Atlanta and the rapid opening of 255 new stores. To top things off, McDonald’s was testing a new item, McNuggets, on its previously chicken-free menu.

In 1983, the Chick-fil-A executive team gathered for a two-day retreat on Georgia’s Lake Lanier, where Cathy’s son and company heir Dan posed an unusual question to a group focused on budgetary planning: “Why are we here?

The answer to this question came in the form of a prayer, which led to the creation of the brand’s purpose—unchanged more than 30 years later: “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 into contact with Chick-fil-A.” Even as Americans grow less and less religious—more than a quarter of the U.S. population reported following no religion as of 2019—it’s the brand’s adherence to this purpose that has led to its incredible success.

Founder S. Truett Cathy—who is still venerated in the organization to this day—is Chick-fil-A’s brand purpose embodied. While it took until 1983 to codify this statement, the way Cathy lived his life helped shape the company into a compassionate, service-oriented organization. Born into poverty in Georgia, Cathy took the message from his pastor that giving is always better than receiving to heart early on: Cathy gave away 10 percent of his income to different charities throughout his life, and started a foster care program, WinShape Homes, that persists to this day. Many companies espouse the ethos of doing well by doing good, but few integrate it so fully into their organization like Chick-fil-A; the next generation of the Cathy family—sons Dan and Bubba, and daughter Trudy—signed a “covenant” to continue the company’s charity work, to grow conservatively, to never take the company public, and to never open the restaurants on Sundays.

This values and mission-oriented approach has trickled down into everything that Chick-fil-A does, with real impact. While closing on Sundays reduces sales opportunities, this observation of the religious day of rest (in line with the company’s values) allows employees and operators to return to work rejuvenated each week. It also emphasizes the brand’s commitment to community and well-being in a way distinct from competitors.

Chick-fil-A’s unique approach also impacts the cornerstone of fast-food growth: franchising.

Unlike most other fast-food chains, which also rely on franchises for continued growth and profitability, Chick-fil-A’s barrier to entry is shockingly low. To open a KFC, for example, the total price for the franchise can range from $1.4 million to $2.8 million, depending on things like location (small town versus big city) and the type of store (solely drive-thru or space to dine-in). McDonald’s can run between $1.3 million and $2.2 million, and the cost of a Wendy’s can reach $3.5 million. These costs often include a variety of different payments, including renting or buying a building for the restaurant, purchasing the equipment, and paying a hefty franchise fee.

Becoming a Chick-fil-A franchisee—who the company calls “operators”—costs only $10,000.

This low cost is not because the company wants to make it possible for just anyone to open a Chick-fil-A restaurant; it’s so Chick-fil-A can ensure the right people will open up a restaurant. Although the cost may be low, the actual steps to becoming an operator of a Chick-fil-A franchise is anything but easy.

Quincy L.A. Springs IV is the operator of a Chick-fil-A franchise in the Vine City neighborhood of Atlanta. Following a career as a U.S. Army Ranger, Springs was recruited to open the restaurant in an attempt to revitalize the neighborhood—and still had to jump through the company’s hoops before Chick-fil-A made the franchise official. Springs, like others who seek a small piece of the chicken restaurant’s rapidly expanding empire, had to write 12 essays, complete 10 interviews, and provide a copy of his high school transcript; following his acceptance, he attended an “extensive, multi-week training program.” Competition for Chick-fil-A’s coveted operator roles is steep: The acceptance rate of applicants sits around 0.15 percent—making the company 37 times more selective than Harvard University.

Chick-fil-A puts its applicants through the ringer to make sure that they’ll embody the brand in a way that aligns with the company’s mission and values; Chick-fil-A is the only fast-food franchise that values adherence to the brand story over a franchisee’s net worth. The company’s rules dictate that each operator can only operate one store, and can hold no other jobs beyond their role as operator to ensure that they’ll be focused on acting as a “positive force” in their community through their operation of a Chick-fil-A restaurant.

When asked about the demographics of its franchisees, Chick-fil-A noted that what unites each store operator is not anything physical. “What we all have in common is a heart for service in our restaurants and our communities,” wrote the company’s communications team in an email to Business Insider.

But Chick-fil-A’s deviations from the fast-food playbook don’t stop there. A joint survey from Newsweek and Statista revealed that the brand has the best fast-food customer service in America. More than 20,000 participants rated brands in categories such as quality of communication, professional competence, range of services, customer focus, and accessibility. Chick-fil-A ranked so highly in these individual categories that the brand made it into the survey’s overall list of companies with the best customer service, ranking fifth alongside organizations like Disney, Ritz-Carlton, and L.L.Bean. Chick-fil-A also topped the American Customer Satisfaction Index in 2019, with a score of 86 out of a possible 100. McDonald’s placed dead-last in the fast-food category with a score of 69.

“We have this really … generous approach to our guests and we want them to feel restored and cared for,” said Chick-fil-A’s director of service and hospitality in an interview with Business Insider. “Not necessarily that it’s like home for them, but it feels warm and inviting and that they want to come back and they want to spend time there.”

In order to create such a hospitable environment, Chick-fil-A decided to throw out the traditional fast-food employee handbook full of rules and minutiae dictating that employees do things like keep their uniform clean and arrive to their shift on time. Instead, leadership has crafted special rules to create the warmth of its restaurants, enacting cell phone bans for customers in order to keep employees from having to interact with someone who is in the middle of a text conversation, and asking employees to say “my pleasure” instead of “you’re welcome” when dealing with customers.

Further, Chick-fil-A supports its employees in a way unprecedented in the fast-food industry, recognizing them in the accomplishment of not just their tasks at the restaurant, but in the lives that they’re trying to build for themselves. Franchisees have done everything from foot the bill for an employee’s education to send food to the hospital when an employee’s relative was ill. In fact, at a 2016 convention for operators in Florida, franchisees were asked directly if they knew their employees’ dreams.

All of these approaches run counter to “best practices” and the rigid operations that define Chick-fil-A’s competitors. Yet the philosophy of clearly communicating mission and values, and empowering employees to live them, is what makes each store so individually successful.

McDonald’s, on the other hand, takes a much more generic approach to training and otherwise dealing with its employees. The brand also has “Special Store Rules” for its employees to follow, although a closer inspection reveals that these codes of conduct are boilerplate for just about any business in food service. This includes mandates that employees should avoid vandalism, put away their electronic devices during their shift, and only use a small sized cup when a manager gives “permission” to get a drink.

Even the McDonald’s mission statement—“to be our customers’ favorite place and way to eat and drink”—ignores the values, aspirations, and customer care necessary to empower success on an individual store level. In doing things by the book, McDonald’s offers no motivation for any employees, whether managers or daily shift workers, to follow its training and regulations—perhaps contributing to the multiple incidences of workplace violence, sexual harassment, and discrimination at McDonald’s locations across the U.S.

Chick-fil-A is a traditional brand, but it’s comfortable doing its own thing. Investing in a clearly articulated brand’s purpose was the first step, but it’s been Chick-fil-A’s willingness to holistically live that story—from store hours, to menu selection, to business practices, to customer experience, to operator selection—that allows it to stand apart. It’s a story-driven strategy that keeps its stores packed, six days a week.

Hannah is an associate at Woden. Want to stay connected? Add Hannah on LinkedIn, read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.