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My lunch with Truett

Living in Chicago, I’ve suffered the full fury of the weather gods. But they’ll always merit a sacrificial lamb on my list because of the day they unleashed a storm that held Truett Cathy and me captive at an outlet of his brainchild, the Chick-fil-A fast-food chain, talking and sampling the menu for hours.

We weren’t so much trapped as we were cut off from the other journalists and VIPs who’d been planning to attend the opening of the restaurant, Chick-fil-A’s first in New York City. The unit was located in a dorm of New York University, about three blocks from where Restaurant Business was headquartered back in those pre-Chicago days.

The dorm was the very one where I had lived during my four years at NYU. A press function with free Chick-fil-A food, three blocks away, in the place abounding in fond memories—what could be better for an editor?

I was about to find out.

A storm of biblical proportions had slammed into the East Coast that morning, keeping planes, trains and even cars at a standstill. Walking three blocks was like slogging through a shower with a clogged drain and the water set at full volume. I was like a wet sponge when I got to Weinstein Hall, but at least I was there.

And so was Cathy, having trekked north the prior night from Chick-fil-A’s home city of Atlanta. He’d popped over to the unit early, presumably to keep an eye on the food prep, which said a lot about his view of brand stewardship. If memory serves correctly, he was in his early 80s.

With virtually no competition there for Cathy’s time, I sat across from him and started asking questions about the earliest days of Chick-fil-A, which began as a diner called The Dwarf Grill. He slipped easily into detailed reminiscences, explaining that he’d worked in the restaurant business after serving in World War II, look for a way to make a good living. He noticed that restaurant chains were beginning to stake out turf, and he wanted to be part of that success. Burgers were already a staple, but an upstart called Kentucky Fried Chicken was drawing hordes with a batter-dipped fried chicken.

He mashed the two ideas together, coming up with a sandwich of fried chicken. The patty cooked faster than a burger, he recounted, and KFC had nothing like it on the menu.

Cathy opened up about those early days, stressing the risks, the near misses, and the inkling he had that shopping malls would become popular public gathering places in the decades ahead (virtually all of the Chick-fil-As built until relatively recently were part of shopping malls.) His intuition was of course on the mark.

I asked him if he ever feared the whole business would collapse. “All the time,” he replied.  At last count, Chick-fil-A’s sales were in the $5-billion-plus range, fueled by average unit volumes of about $2.7 million.

That day, Cathy even touched on religion, albeit warily. He seemed more aware and concerned than his son Dan ever was about the sensitivities of blending business and faith when you’re dealing with persons of all beliefs and persuasions. His comments related to the practice he set immediately from the start of Chick-fil-A of closing every restaurant on Sunday, regardless of its location.

Originally, he acknowledged, the policy was wholly a nod to his religious conviction that Sunday should indeed be a day of rest. But, he said, a six-day workweek quickly became a business advantage. Restaurant managers typically worked seven days a week back then, so the guarantee of a day off drew the best to Chick-fil-A. Ditto for young people whose parents liked the notion of having the family together for church and Sunday dinner.

The chain, of course, has since been a wellspring of considerably controversy because Dan Cathy, the scion who succeeded Truett as CEO, has been less measured while speaking as the chain’s leader about his personal beliefs. There often is no wall in his utterances between church and business state. He touched off a firestorm by coming out against same-sex marriages, and has asserted that traditional families are the ones sanctioned by God.

It’s a shame that those matters have figured into so many obituaries of Truett Cathy since his death early Monday at age 93. The elder Cathy was no doubt extremely conservative in his religious and social beliefs, but that shouldn’t overshadow his perfect embodiment of the American dream, or how much opportunity he created for other southerners from hardscrabble beginnings.

He was a visionary and an American icon, right up there with Ray Kroc of McDonald’s, Dave Thomas of Wendy’s, or Carl Karcher of Carl’s Jr.  I’m glad I had a chance to learn that fact firsthand.

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