On Dec 31, 2012, Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A, stood on the 50-yard line of the Georgia Dome, surrounded by seventy-two thousand screaming fans, awaiting kickoff at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
How did Truett Cathy, who borrowed $6,600 in 1946 to build the Dwarf Grill in Hapeville, GA, become a titan in the fast-food industry with 1,683 franchises and more than $4.6 billion in sales? Steven Robinson, the former Chief Marketing Officer at Chick-fil-A chronicles the life of both the company and its founder, Truett Cathy, in Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand (Thomas Nelson). As Robinson tells the story of Chick-fil-A, a clear narrative emerges in which the reader discovers the power of Truett’s Christian faith in transforming the original Dwarf Grill into the nationally recognized Chick-fil-A restaurant chain.
However, the success of Chick-fil-A was not a foregone conclusion as Truett struggled through a series of unfortunate events during the early years—personally and financially. Not only did he lose his brother and business partner, Ben, in an airplane crash in 1949, but a fire destroyed one of his two Dwarf Grill restaurants in 1960. Compounding these stresses and disasters, Truett’s doctor discovered he had colon cancer at the age of 38. Despite these hardships, Truett maintained his faith in God, and emerged from the challenges with a newfound focus on redesigning the Dwarf Grill. This redesign in the 1960s formed the basis for the eventual transition into the Chick-fil-A chain as Truett saw the power of the “one owner, one restaurant” model with the chicken sandwich as the feature entrée. This experience greatly shaped his franchisee model.
Whereas other fast-food companies require potential franchisees to expend close to a million dollars in initial costs, Truett structured the agreement with franchisees in such a way as to incentivize the franchisee to operate his or her business in the most efficient manner. With a low, refundable $6,000 deposit, combined with an even 50-50 split in profits between the operator and the corporate Chick-fil-A office, Truett created a franchise model in which the franchisee genuinely cared about the restaurant as he or she could potentially derive significant financial gains from efficient operations.
As a result of strongly aligning the interests of the franchise operator with the needs of the customer, Truett created a brand in which the customer stood at the center of attention. Operations in the restaurant revolved around creating and maintaining unparalleled customer service. Chick-fil-A employees were instructed, according to company policy, to practice ‘Second Mile” service in which the operators and employees distinguished themselves from the competition by carrying eat-in meals on trays to those customers seated inside the restaurant as well as delivering larger orders on trays to those who wished to remain inside their cars. Though biblical scripture inspired the policy, representing the early followers of Christ who carried the Roman soldiers’ packs for an extra mile, Truett did not advertise the policy in such biblical language. Instead, Truett demonstrated his devotion to serving God through his policies toward customers.
In many respects, Steve Robinson’s Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A serves as both a eulogy to Truett Cathy, who died on Sept. 8, 2014, as well as a celebration of the business he built. Though a relatively simple concept, the distribution of chicken sandwiches, Truett Cathy’s obsession with customer service, coupled with the trust placed in the franchisee operators, provided Chick-fil-A with the ingredients to successfully grow. To this day, Chick-fil-A continues to honor the memory of its founder through tireless devotion to customer service and the creation of quality food.
Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand is now available for purchase.
ABOUT STEVE ROBINSON:
Steve Robinson is the former executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Chick-fil-A, Inc. He serves as counsel for leadership development and continues community involvement on behalf of Chick-fil-A. A native of Foley, Alabama, Steve is the son of a farmer and entrepreneur. He holds an associate degree in business administration from Faulkner State Junior College, a bachelor of science in marketing from Auburn University, and a master’s in advertising from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Steve and his wife, Dianne, live in Atlanta. They have two children and four grandchildren.