Restaurant leaders from around the world learned yesterday that hitting 50 doesn’t temper a concept’s disruptive tendencies. Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy dashed that notion long before he aired his phone number and email address to attendees of the Global Restaurant Leadership Conference, ending his presentation with a request they get in touch (and, no, we’re not going to provide the contact info).
Cathy, who sang for guests of his father’s restaurant before the operation was recast as Chick-fil-A in 1967, reeled off surprise after surprise during his keynote address. Here were a few of the more stunning revelations.
1. Chick-fil-A grinds fresh pepper tableside
Employees now approach guests in Chick-fil-A’s dining room with a sizeable pepper mill and a request more usually found in fine dining: “Would you like some fresh pepper on that?”
Patrons who don’t even like pepper are so taken aback by the service touch that they’ll ask for some pepper to be ground onto their salad, Cathy explained.
He also noted that Chick-fil-As are putting small vases of flowers—“real flowers, not plastic flowers,” Cathy stressed—on guest tables.
2. New business ventures for the family?
Noting that his father was hatching new restaurant concepts while in his 90s, Cathy revealed that he finds himself in an entrepreneurial mindset at this point in his life. He mentioned an interest in “experiential retail ventures,” without revealing their brand names, and added, “We’re looking at the possibility of starting a venture-capital fund.”
Cathy noted in passing that one of the last ventures of his father, Chick-fil-A founder and restaurant legend Truett Cathy, was a restaurant specializing in Hawaiian chicken. “As far as we can tell, my dad only made one trip to Hawaii during his lifetime, but it must have made quite an impression on him,” the younger Cathy said. “We found it took three Chick-fil-As to pay for what we lost on one Hawaiian chicken restaurant.”
3. Urbanization is paying off handsomely
Chick-fil-A has traditionally been a suburban concept, but it realized that aversion to cities would have to end sometime. It finally took the plunge and opened an oversized unit in New York City in 2015. “It was a tough lease to sign,” Cathy joked, noting that even garbage pickup was a sky-high expense.
But the unit quickly became a hit, generating $9 million in annual sales, Cathy revealed. Even with the jaw-dropping occupancy, labor and operating costs, the beachhead unit is a big moneymaker. And now Chick-fil-A is pursuing more city sites, looking to ride what Cathy described as a worldwide urbanization trend.
4. Turnover? What turnover?
Chick-fil-A’s nontraditional partnership model—it develops and owns all its restaurants, but brings in a local operator to manage the unit—has brought a stability rare in the business, Cathy revealed. “We enjoy a 98% retention rate among our restaurant operators,” he told the GRLC audience.
5. Who hasn’t failed?
Cathy noted Chick-fil-A hasn’t dodged failure since it opened as a 584-square-foot mall restaurant specializing in what Truett Cathy dubbed "chicken steaks." At one point, the young Cathy indicated, his father started a chain called Flaming Torch. The junior Cathy didn’t reveal particulars about the concept, but suggested it was a dismal failure. "It made us resilient," he said.
6. The pot on Cathy’s wall
A revelation about Dan Cathy himself was served up by his interviewer in the session, Coca-Cola SVP Roy Jackson. The soft-drink executive recounted how he and Cathy had made an unannounced visit years ago to a Chick-fil-A where they found an employee “scrubbing the heck” out of a dimpled, battered pot in the kitchen.
“This thing shone like a piece of jewelry,” Jackson said.
Cathy approached the employee and praised her for showing such enthusiasm, and the duo left. Then Cathy returned, praised the woman again, and left with the pot. He had it mounted on a board and he displays it to this day in his office, Jackson said, a reminder of what passion on the job looks like.