In 1967, Truett Cathy opened the first Chick-fil-A in Atlanta's Greenbriar Mall. The menu offered just a few classics, including its famous chicken sandwich, which sold for $0.59.
Over the past five decades, Chick-fil-A has gone from a cult favorite to a dominating presence on the fast food scene. The chicken chain now employs 120,000 people in 2,300 restaurants across 47 states, including New York. It first opened its doors to New Yorkers in October 2015, at the corner of 6th Avenue and 37th street in midtown Manhattan.
This particular location is one of the busiest in the nation, says franchise owner Oscar Fittipaldi. He owned a Chick-fil-A in Philadelphia before being selected among hundreds of applicants to be the brand's first Manhattan franchisee.
In Philly, Fittipaldi's restaurant completed about 900 transactions on the busiest days of the week, he tells me, but in New York, "we do 3,500 transactions on the busiest days."
What's it like to actually work there? I decided to find out.
To keep up with the demand, Fittipaldi has hired more than 125 team members, including assistant director Monique Mendoza, who let me shadow her during her 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday shift. Mendoza, 22, has been with Chick-fil-A for seven years — she started behind the counter as a teen in Utah and worked her way up to her current managerial position.
Before the sun is up, I head over to the original NYC joint to start my day behind the scenes. Once there, I put on my head-to-toe uniform, which included a hat, red polo and non-slip shoes.
Now I'm ready.
Chick-fil-A is open at 6:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and the most popular breakfast item is chicken on a handmade buttermilk biscuit.
The "biscuit master," JaQuill, makes fresh batches every morning from 6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
The process is simple but laborious — for me, at least: We combine Chick-fil-A's biscuit mix with water, roll the dough out flat and use a giant cookie-cutter type apparatus to shape them.
After filling a tray with 20 biscuits, we send it up through a mini elevator to the kitchen floor, where each biscuit is buttered, baked and assembled into a breakfast sandwich.
Chick-fil-A takes their chicken seriously. For starters, they use only whole, boneless breasts of chicken that have never been ground or separated. The chicken contains no fillers, steroids or hormones.
The most popular chicken menu item is the original chicken sandwich, but it's not the meat or the bun that makes it a crowd-pleaser, says Fittipaldi: "The secret ingredient is the seasoning," a recipe that is locked in a vault at Chick-fil-A's headquarters in Atlanta.
The chicken is hand-breaded to order and pressure cooked in peanut oil. There's a separate pressure cooker for the spicy chicken, which is also cooked in peanut oil.
Frying the chicken isn't easy: The fry basket is heavy, the oil is hot and you're on the clock — you want to drop the chicken in the oil and close the lid of the pressure cooker quickly, to avoid losing heat. A few employees show me scars from oil burns. One even burns himself that day, though he is pretty cool about it. "It doesn't phase me anymore," he tells me. "I just get a little bit of burner cream downstairs."
Chick-fil-A also offers grilled chicken, which is cooked in canola oil on a grill designed specially by the restaurant. Fittipaldi estimates that, on the busiest days, his restaurant goes through about 10 cases, or 360 pounds, of regular chicken, and about nine cases of spicy chicken.
When we're breading and frying the raw chicken, we put on a yellow apron and gloves rather than the white apron and gloves that most team members in the kitchen wear. The apron system is designed to avoid cross contamination: When you're wearing yellow, you handle only raw meat.
Sandwiches are assembled precisely, too. Each of the original chicken sandwiches, for example, include two pickles that are placed next to each other but never touching. "They should be dating, not mating," one team member tells me.
The pickles can't have any holes bigger than a dime in them, either, or they're tossed.
Waffle fries are the restaurant's top seller.
The fries, made from potatoes grown in Washington state, come frozen in larges bags. To prepare them, we throw them into a basket, fry them in canola oil for two minutes, shake the basket out to drain the oil and add sea salt.
Since their debut in 1985, the waffle fry recipe has remained unchanged.
Besides the biscuits, chicken and fries, another fan favorite is the lemonade, which is made fresh from three ingredients: lemon juice, water and sugar (or Splenda for the diet lemonade). Mendoza says that, each day, they squeeze about 13 cases, each of which contains 115 to 135 Sunkist lemons.
Breakfast ends at 10:30 a.m., by which point I'm already exhausted. But there's no time to rest: Lunch orders start coming in and, from 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m., "we have a line out the door," Mendoza says. "It gets pretty intense."
During the lunch rush, about 30 total employees will be working, spread out on all three floors: in the basement kitchen preparing food, on the main floor in the kitchen or behind the counter and in the upstairs dining area cleaning tables and bathrooms. Four to five team members will stand in line with the customers and take orders using iPads. "It's called upstream ordering," Mendoza tells me. "It's our version of a drive-thru in New York City."
On Friday, the busiest day of the week, six to seven employees will be taking orders on iPads.
Even with lines out the door, customers get their food quickly. "We average a speed of service of two minutes and 15 seconds," says Mendoza. That's the time from when the customer places their order to when they get their food.
Chick-fil-A takes pride in their customer service, and it shows: In 2018, for the third year in a row, Chick-fil-A was named America's favorite fast-food chain in the American Customer Satisfaction Index's annual survey.
How employees interact with the customers is "what sets us apart," Mendoza tells me. The little things matter, she adds, which is one of the reasons you'll almost never hear a Chick-fil-A employee say "you're welcome." They're trained to say "my pleasure" any time a customer says "thank you." The more mannerly response is meant to add an extra level of care and make the transaction seem more personal.
Mendoza, who has been saying "my pleasure" for the past seven years, says that it's ingrained in her vocabulary now and has become her go-to response even outside of work.
The waffle fries are the most-ordered item on Chick-fil-A's menu. Mendoza estimates that, each day, their restaurant goes through 30 to 40 cases, each of which contains six bags of fries. Her personal favorite menu item, though, is the grilled chicken club sandwich with pepper jack cheese.
Fittipaldi prefers the original chicken sandwich, which is also a top-seller. He adds the Chick-fil-A sauce, a blend of barbecue sauce and honey mustard.
Mendoza dispels the myth that there's a secret menu. That hasn't stopped people from ordering "some weird things," though, she says. While they can't fulfill every request, "we make it happen if we can make it happen."
There may not be a secret menu, but "the coolest thing that we have right now is probably our mobile app," says Mendoza. It allows customers to order ahead of time and skip the line.
Plus, every time you place an order through the app, you receive points, which can be redeemed for free food.
"One of the hardest parts of the job is dealing with the unexpected," says Mendoza, "and understanding that sometimes deliveries may run late or equipment may shut down."
One of Mendoza's responsibilities is to forecast how much of each ingredient, including produce and buns, the restaurant will go through per day and make sure they're stocked. How much she orders depends on the day of the week. On Fridays, for example, she needs to order much more.
While they don't normally run out of ingredients, "if we were to run out of one thing it would be the Chick-fil-A sauce," says Mendoza. "People love their sauce."
Besides the free food — Mendoza eats Chick-fil-A for breakfast and lunch every day — one of the biggest perks is the scholarship program. In 2018, $14.65 million in scholarships was awarded to team members nationwide.
Mendoza, who wants to get a business degree, plans to take advantage of the program, she tells me: "I am looking forward to going back to school. I love learning and Chick-fil-A will be able to help me out with that."
There's a lot of opportunity for growth within the company, says Mendoza, but not everyone realizes that: "People look at Chick-fil-A as just a fast food restaurant, but it's so much more than that."
She points to her own experience of getting promoted within the company. Before she took on her current leadership role, she was part of the grand opening team, which entailed traveling to newly opened restaurants and training their staffs.
"I'm 22. I'm young. ... But Oscar never saw my age and was like, 'Oh, she's too young,'" says Mendoza. "He just saw potential and he just ran with that and ran with me. And I think that trusting and taking a chance on people that are willing to do the work is probably the best feeling ever."
Mendoza's shift ends at 3 p.m. After work, "I will be enjoying New York City," she says. "Exploring the city is my favorite thing."
Then she'll catch the New Jersey Transit and make the hour-long commute back to her apartment in Weehawken. She'll be in bed by 10 p.m., up at 4 a.m. and back in the restaurant at 6 a.m. for another day of work — and more Chick-fil-A.
"After seven years, I could still eat it every day," she says, adding: "I do eat it every day."
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