"All of us become more wise as time goes by," he says, apologetically, in a rare, one-hour sit-down interview. "We sincerely care about all people."
About two years ago, Cathy made headlines after conceding to being "guilty as charged," in confirming Chick-fil-A's support of the traditional family. Both ardent supporters and angry picketers showed up at stores. While Cathy's comments didn't hurt short-term business — and even helped it — Chick-fil-A executives recognize that the comments may have done longer-term damage to the brand's image at the very time it was eyeing major growth outside its friendly Southern market.
The national growth is about to go into overdrive — and it has a huge, new product platform behind it. Its biggest-ever new product roll-out will be announced Tuesday: a Millennial-targeting grilled chicken line for which the company has spent the past 12 years testing more than 1,000 grilled chicken recipes and developing such super-secret grilling equipment that executives won't let it be photographed.
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Chick-fil-A's food, long-regarded as extra savory but nutritionally naughty, is going through an industry unprecedented "cleaning" cycle, with an ultimate aim of improving its brand image with trend-setting Millennials. Last month, it announced plans to sell only antibiotic-free chicken within five years. It's testing the removal of high fructose corn syrup from all dressings and sauces and artificial ingredients from its bun. Designers are trying to figure out how to remove fast-food's tell-tale plastic from Chick-fil-A stores — even from its serving trays.
The once-tiny, regional chain just surpassed giant KFC to become the nation's largest chicken chain in domestic sales. But along with this sales and geographical growth comes a new social consciousness. That's not by accident, says Christopher Muller, professor of hospitality at Boston University. "The politics of their Southern Baptist values will not transcend their core markets," he says.
Chick-fil-A's socially conservative agenda, which formally led the company to donate millions to charitable groups opposed to gay marriage, has been tempered. This, just as the company aims to quickly expand into Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Southern hospitality must give way to urban reality as the 1,800 store chain moves to compete with big city success stories like McDonald's, Panera Bread and Chipotle.
If nothing else, Cathy has listened. In 2012, Cathy not only heard from some unhappy consumers about his comments against gay marriage, but also from some store operators and employees. Now, he says, "I'm going to leave it to politicians and others to discuss social issues."
That's precisely what experts are advising. "He should put this as far behind him as fast as he possibly can," says Gary Stibel, CEO of New England Consulting Group.
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One past critic has even become an unlikely fan. "Dan and I have an ongoing friendship," says Shane Windmeyer, executive director of the gay rights advocacy group Campus Pride. "I am appreciative for the common ground we have established in treating all people with dignity and respect — including LGBT people."
Which means Chick-fil-A can focus on what matters most: the food and growth. The privately-held company, whose sales last year reached $5.1 billion — up 9.3%, reports the research firm Technomic — may rank among the most intriguing growth stories in fast food. Imagine this: A typical Chick-fil-A racked up annual sales of about $3.3 million last year, while a typical McDonald's posted sales of about $2.5 million. Never mind that Chick-fil-A is closed Sundays.
"The next big thing is urbanization," says Cathy, 61, who tools around on his Harley-Davidson in his spare time. "That's where the future is heading."
So, the company that has spent 68 years building its stores inside suburban malls and near big-box retailers is mostly tossing out those plans. Now it wants to focus on big cities and big-city dwellers.
It's working. There were lines out the door when it first entered the Chicago market about three years ago, and business is still strong, says Bob Goldin, executive vice president at Technomic. "They have a cult following no matter where they go," he says. Sure, big city real estate is more expensive and the competition will leave battle wounds, "but Chick-fil-A is a proven winner."