How Chick-fil-A went from cult favorite to fast food behemoth

Luke Sharrett | Bloomberg | Getty Images

In a sea of electric-hued burgers, "O"-shaped chicken rings, and fried chicken patties masquerading as sandwich buns, Chick-fil-A's menu stands out. Unlike many of its fast-food brethren, the chicken chain has shunned gimmicks in favor of a relatively forthright menu — by fast-food standards, anyway. While KFC was busy touting the latest iteration of the Double Down, Chick-fil-A quietly introduced a new salad. While McDonald's was shilling mozzarella sticks, Chick-fil-A unveiled a fairly unremarkable new line of sauces.

Though it stays away from buzzy novelty foods, and in spite of statements against gay marriage made by Chick-fil-A's CEO Dan Cathy in 2012 — which caused an uproar across the country — the chicken chain is growing faster than ever before. A simple, straightforward approach is yielding record sales and rapid expansion for Chick-fil-A. Here's why the chicken chain comes out on top in customer service polls year after year.

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From its unusually chipper employees to a steadfast adherence to religious values (it's famously closed on Sundays), the chain seems almost... humble. But the red and white exterior of its some 1,950 locations belie a fast food workhorse, one that has not only usurped the drive-thru fried chicken throne from the much larger KFC (which had 4,270 U.S. locations at the end of 2015), but is now more profitable than every pizza brand in the country.

The average Chick-fil-A location brings in more than three times as much revenue as the average KFC, according to QSR Magazine. And despite the fact that it has fewer than half the locations of its fried chicken rival, it is growing at an astounding rate. Over the past five years, Chick-fil-A has opened an average of 95 locations each year. KFC, on the other hand, opened 10 restaurants in the U.S. in 2015, and plans to open 22 in 2016.

So what's behind this success? And what does this mean about the changing tastes of American consumers? More than ever before, chain restaurants are listening to what consumers want, developing new products after rigorous trials, and using technology to streamline internal systems and reach a new audience. Based on public opinion and earnings, Chick-fil-A understands what today's diner wants, and is delivering it with an increasing amount of precision.

Menu Development

Paul Trotti, Chick-fil-A's Director of Menu Strategy, attributes the company's success to an unwillingness to settle. It took seven years to achieve a "smoky, backyard flavor" in the company's grilled chicken. The original chicken sandwich — Chick-fil-A's best-seller — spent a full four years in development.

"We went through 61 different iterations of a tea product," he says. "The customers liked it — but they didn't love it." That product was ultimately abandoned altogether.

While other chains introduce new items as a way to combat menu fatigue (McDonald's reportedly once had as many as 145 items on its menu), customers won't see any drastically different items at Chick-fil-A anytime soon.

Hamburgers, for instance, are on the menu at the Chick-fil-A Dwarf Houses (these are full-service restaurants in the metro Atlanta area modeled after the original Chick-fil-A concept). But don't expect red meat to crop up on the menu at standard Chick-fil-A restaurants. "We would not very likely have burgers on the menu in the future, no," says Trotti, when the company's now-famous cow commercials are brought up.

In addition to introducing so-called "healthier" items — hence the new salads — the company is also "focused on continuing to innovate [its] breakfast menu," a move likely impacted in part by the success of McDonald's breakfast. When asked whether the chain has any plans to make breakfast an all-day affair, à la McDonald's (here's a Change.org petition requesting just that), Trotti says the company currently has "no plans to do so."

App Engagement

According to Chick-fil-A lore, the company's founder, Truett Cathy, knew all of the customers at his first location by name, along with their favorite orders. Today, the company utilizes both its employees and technology to leverage that focus on customer service.

Three and a half years ago, Chick-fil-A hired Michael Lage to head up its Mobile Experience division. Lage, a former Facebook and Google employee, has spent nearly all of his time at Chick-fil-A focusing on the company's app. For the past few years, Lage has been meeting with a handful of developers and web architects every week in one of the Chick-fil-A Atlanta campus' three innovation centers. On June 1, the app officially launched. Within three days, it had been downloaded more than a million times.

"I think of our app as a remote control — just as you can adjust the volume on a television remotely, you can guide your dining experience remotely," says Lage. The app allows customers to customize their meal (down to the number of pickles they'd like on a sandwich) and skip the line. It also doubles as a rewards program.

Chick-fil-A One also contains a mechanism by which customers can give feedback on their experience at Chick-fil-A, which Lage says the company is "constantly monitoring [along with its social media channels] to determine what customers want."

Diner Ratings

Despite the attention it has received for its aforementioned vehement opposition of gay marriage, the company still manages to come out on top in customer satisfaction studies. One such study, which questioned consumers about their experiences with 80 brands spanning multiple industries (financial services, insurance, fast food, etc.), was recently released by marketing agency Rauxa. Chick-fil-A leap-frogged brands like Amazon, FedEx, and Discover to take the top spot.

"One of the questions we ask study participants is to 'Name the first three words that come to mind when they think of a certain brand,'" says Ian Baer, Rauxa's Chief Strategy Officer.

The words that came up most often when consumers were asked about Chick-fil-A included "delicious," "tasty," and "yummy." But it was the non-food descriptors that Baer says were most unique. "You see a greater use of terms like 'caring' and 'respectful.'"

Words used to describe one of Chick-fil-A's chief competitors, on the other hand, are altogether different. "The word 'delicious' wasn't actually used at all to describe McDonald's," he says. "'Fast' and 'cheap' were used more often than 'good' and 'friendly.'"

After the study was complete, Baer and his colleagues began investigating factors beyond those captured in the study to determine why some brands were seen in such a positive light and others were more neutral. "We found that among the most positively-viewed brands, it really came down to delivering a more personalized experience through both in-store and digital assets."

The way a company takes care of and pays its employees was a factor, as well.

"Chick-fil-A, Starbucks, Five Guys — these are companies that do not abide by the traditional rules. When you only employ minimum-wage workers, you don't train them as well, and therefore can't deliver as personalized an experience. And frankly, the food quality is compromised, as well."

When it comes to instituting "cultures of customer delight," Baer says Chick-fil-A has all but cornered the market. "At Chick-fil-A, when one store comes up with a customer service innovation — something that 'delights' customers — they can quickly expand that to the entire chain within days. If a McDonald's franchisee tests a new menu item and it becomes successful, it can take years for that variation to become policy company-wide."

It's perhaps unsurprising then that the most dramatic finding from Rauxa's study was how consumers cited their experiences in dealing with employees. "There was a tremendous separation between companies that do customer service well, and those don't," says Baer.

Each brand in the study was given a satisfaction score, based on consumer responses and ratings. Chick-fil-A got high marks, scoring 52 percent on a scale where 40 percent was considered excellent. McDonald's was the lowest-rated fast-food brand in the study, scoring just 22 percent.

"Overall, the words used to describe all of the fast-food companies were generally positive," says Baer. "But it's fairly telling that one of the most often-used words to describe McDonald's was, 'whatever.'"