Chick-Fil-A Does Business With Religious Conviction
Every day of the week, the Chick-Fil-A restaurant chain rakes in more than $6 million dollars — every day, that is, except Sunday when all of the chain's 1,340 stores are closed. It's not because of any state or federal law — this company answers to a higher authority.
Honoring Sunday as a day of rest is just one of the ways Chick-Fil-A combines two things that don't often go together — business and religion.
With every customer it serves, Chick-Fil-A also strives to serve God. It is a company grounded in Christian beliefs that drive everything it does, including closing on one of fast foods’ most profitable days of the week.
"Business people are always quoting, you know, great thinkers in business," President and Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy said. "You know, whether it be the Jack Welchs or the Peter Druckers, we simply choose to go a little further back in history and say, 'Hey, you know now, the 10 Commandments that Moses scribed, you know, from the heart of God, you know, many, many years ago, are very applicable today."
While some may find Cathy's talk of God and business uncomfortable, or even offensive, you wouldn't know it from the appetite customers have for Chick-Fil-A.
At grand openings across the country, parking lots have been filled with scores of people who have spent the night, sleeping in cars and tents, awaiting the unlocking of the doors. Dan Cathy has been known to camp out with the customers instead of staying in a hotel. And at every opening, he rewards the devoted, giving vouchers to the first 100 customers in line for free Chick-Fil-A meals for every week of the year.
While the crowds may come for Chick-Fil-A's signature sandwiches, or because of the quirky cows that beg people to "eat mor chikin," they get more than the usual fast food fare.
Seventy-three new restaurants opened in the just the past year, and sales are up 15 percent to $2.3 billion. And it may be because of the religion factor, and not in spite of it, that this privately held, family-run business has thrived.
But Cathy wouldn't refer to Chic-Fil-A as a "Christian business."
"Christ never died for a corporation, he died for us personally," Cathy said. "And so – John 3:16, you know, says that, 'for God so loved the world' including you and I, and so we don't claim to be a christian business. But we unashamedly tell people, 'hey, you know, we operate by Biblical principles."
So why not just leave religion out of the business entirely, then?
"The Warren Buffett of his day was a guy by the name of Solomon," Cathy said. "And he said this in proverbs: "If, in all your ways (even while you're selling chicken) if, in all your ways, you acknowledge the Lord, then He'll direct you in all your paths."
It is a religious conviction Cathy inherited from his father, Chick-Fil-A's founder and Chairman, Truett Cathy. In 1946, he opened the family's first restaurant, the Dwarf House, just outside of Atlanta. That's where he set the closed-on-Sunday policy so his family and employees could go to church.
And it's where Truett Cathy received what he calls the "divine inspiration" for what would become Chick-Fil-A's signature chicken sandwich — a recipe that would make him a billionaire.
Many CEOs check their religion at the door
Truett Cathy is perhaps as famous for his sandwich as he is for his beliefs. While many CEOs check their religion at the door, Truett Cathy didn't make that choice. "This just happens to be my faith," he says. But it's a faith so strong, so unwavering, that Truett put it right into the company's mission statement, etched in bronze at the company headquarters: To Honor God.
And there are other reminders too — bells toll every 15 minutes, Proverbs are displayed on the walls, and every Monday morning, there is a voluntary prayer service for employees.
Customers, though, may never know the company's ties to Christianity. There are no mentions of God or religion in any Chick-Fil-A restaurant. But Biblical principles are ingrained in every one of its workers who, after rigorous screening, are hired for more than just their talent.
"We're looking for our right fit as it relates to character," Dan Cathy said. "We want people to know how to operate with a sense of where true north is for their own personal lives."
And while some people may hear the word "fit" and think it's code language for "Christian," Cathy said that is not the case.
"Certainly the word 'fit' is certainly not a code word, you know, for Christianity," he said. "But it certainly is a code word, you know, for character and chemistry and confidence. And that's what we're looking for in Chick-Fil-A."
That’s what attracted Melissa Winkfield to Chick-Fil-A 14 years ago. She started as an hourly worker and stayed because the company’s beliefs are her beliefs. Now, she runs the top grossing Chick-Fil-A in the Atlanta market. The company and its workers are like family, she says.
"Jocelyn here is one of my managers back here, going to school right now," Winfield said of one of her employees who is studying to be a medical assistant. "She's definitely looking to improve and move on up."
Winkfield's knowledge of her employees outside the work environment may seem intrusive to some, but for Chick-Fil-A, it's good business, fostering employee loyalty that keeps turnover rates of hourly workers among the lowest in fast food: just 3 percent versus the industry's 50 percent average.
And the loyalty goes both ways. 70 percent of Chick-Fil-A's restaurant operators started as hourly workers. Helping many of them make the leap to manager is the company'slow capital requirement up front — just $5,000. Chick-Fil-A owns the restaurant and the land, and in turn gets a cut of sales and profits. For winkfield, it was an opportunity that changed her life.
But not everyone is a believer in mixing business and the Bible. We’ve found that since 1988 there have been a dozen lawsuits against Chick-Fil-A or its operators alleging employment discrimination.
The company says not all of those claims involved religious discrimination, and that as a corporation with more than 50,000 employees, a few lawsuits are to be expected.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which handles discrimination claims told CNBC that being uncomfortable isn't enough to constitute unlawful harassment.
"You're talking about conduct that is hostile and demeaning and is so severe and pervasive that reasonable people would think 'ooh, this creates a hostile environment," said EEOC Assistant Legal Counsel Diana Johnston.
The EEOC has not filed any formal complaints against Chick-Fil-A, and for its part, Chick-Fil-A says making everyone feel welcome goes beyond the law — it's the Christian thing to do.
Creating a comfortable atmosphere
"If we don't create an atmosphere in which that person can be very comfortable, then we're not fulfilling our mission statement," Dan Cathy said. "Because, you know, the Bible speaks of love. The Bible speaks of acceptance. The Bible speaks of embracing others that are different than you are."
But what about talking about Jesus Christ and God and the Bible so openly — does Cathy think that makes the goal of making everyone comfortable that much harder to achieve?
"I've tried to be very guarded in the times in which I would use God's name or mention the Bible and scripture," he said. "We would never want to be, you know, shoving this in front of people's face and wearing it on our shirt sleeve."
But Chick-Fil-A is not shy about its faith here. An hour out of Atlanta, at Chick-Fil-A’s charitable foundation Winshape, the company spends some of its profits to promote its beliefs, through Bible-based programs.
Winshape is where Chick-Fil-A holds corporate meetings and offers employees marriage counseling. But it's also where Truett Cathy fulfills one of his personal callings — to help children. There are scholarships, summer camps, homes for foster kids, and all of it bankrolled by Chick-Fil-A.
In fact, the company owns the 40-acre campus, and spent $13 million last year to run the programs. And the next generation of Cathys seems more than happy to carry on the family’s beliefs — like 25-year-old Mark Cathy. One of a dozen grandchildren, Mark and his wife, Amy, opened a Chick-Fil-A in San Marcos, Calif.
"I know that grandfather, he — he's seen no problem in running his business on Biblical principles," Mark Cathy said. "And then, my uncle talks about, you know, that treating everybody with that honor, dignity and respect and the second mile service — I think that that's the type of stuff that I'm interested in."
And can he see a day when the company backs off the mention of God?
"I think if we pursue the honor, dignity, respect and integrity — things that are timeless — then we'll continue on with the, you know, success of the business, I hope," Cathy said.
Back in atlanta, Dan Cathy eyes global expansion. He knows not all of Chick-Fil-A's practices — like closing on sunday -- will translate across different countries and cultures. But Chick-Fil-A's mix of business and faith is a recipe he knows the company can't abandon.
"As we build these personal relationships and legacy of loyalty, it produces sales and raving fans," he said. "So it's a formula that has been modeled out for me for the last 60 years and one that I, my brother, my sister are intent on preserving, you know, for the next 60 years."