Companies, People, Ideas
The Cult of Chick-fil-A
Emily Schmall 07.23.07
The fast-food purveyor seeks loyal employees and operators who believe serving chicken is God’s work. Careful screening of new hires keeps it out of trouble.
At a busy Chick-fil-A in Rome, Ga. Richard Yadkowski keeps a paternal eye on employees squeezing lemons and cooking chicken. Like seven teens who work in his restaurant, Yadkowski, 33, came to Chick-fil-A when he was living in a group foster home created by Chick-fil-A founder and chairman S. Truett Cathy. “I tell the kids, ‘This is not just selling sandwiches; it pays for your upbringing,'” says Yadkowski, a hardworking, happily married Southern Baptist who plans to work with Chick-fil-A for life.
Chick-fil-A tries to recruit and retain loyalists like Yadkowski, who is so devoted to the company and its founder that he named his son Samuel (Cathy’s first name). The privately held chain–with $2.3 billion in systemwide sales last year from 1,300 franchised stores in the U.S.–is best known for chicken-breast sandwiches that inspire fans to camp out so they are first in line when a new restaurant opens.
Cathy, 86, credits the company’s success to 975 franchisees and 600 employees who are unusually dedicated in an industry known for grumpy operators and high turnover among hourly workers. The turnover among Chick-fil-A operators is a low 5% a year. Among hourly workers turnover is 60%, compared with 107% for the industry. “We tell applicants, ‘If you don’t intend to be here for life, you needn’tapply,'” says Cathy, who opened his first restaurant in 1946.
That’s not the only company mandate. Chick-fil-A’s corporate mission, as stated on a plaque at company headquarters (and by Cathy), is to “glorify God.” It is the only national fast-food chain that closes on Sunday so operators can go to church and spend time with their families; franchisees who don’t go along with the rule risk having their contracts terminated. Company meetings and retreats include prayers, and the company encourages franchisees to market their restaurants through church groups. Howe Rice, a franchisee in Glen Allen, Va., hosts a Bible study group in one of his two Chick-fil-A restaurants every Tuesday. He offers a free breakfast to all who attend. “You don’t have to be a Christian to work at Chick-fil-A, but we ask you to base your business on biblical principles because they work,” says Cathy.
Chick-fil-A is run by Cathy and his sons Dan T., chief operating officer, and Donald (a.k.a. Bubba), a senior vice president. They screen prospective operators for their loyalty, wholesome values and willingness to buy into Chick-fil-A’s in-your-face Christian credo, espoused often by Cathy, an evangelical Southern Baptist who says “the Lord has never spoken to me, but I feel Chick-fil-A has been His gift.”
Fifty employees and one franchisee grew up in one of 13 Christian foster homes in the U.S. and Brazil run by a nonprofit organization Chick-fil-A funds, the WinShape Foundation. Sixteen others were in Sunday-schoolclasses Cathy teaches at First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Ga. Cathy likes to give a leg up to people who have ambition but little else: The company asks operators to pay just $5,000 as an initial franchise fee. KFC, for example, demands $25,000 and a net worth of $1 million.
Chick-fil-A pays for the land, the construction and the equipment. It then rents everything to the franchisee for 15% of the restaurant’s sales plus 50% of the pretax profit remaining. Operators, who are discouraged from running more than a few restaurants, take home $100,000 a year on average from a single outlet. A solo Bojangles’ franchisee can expect to earn $330,000 (Ebitda) on sales of $1.7 million.
Loyalty to the company isn’t the only thing that matters to Cathy, who wants married workers, believing they are more industrious and productive. One in three company operators have attended Christian-based relationship-building retreats through WinShape at Berry College in Mount Berry, Ga. The programs include classes on conflict resolution and communication. Family members of prospective operators–children, even–are frequently interviewed so Cathy and his family can learn more about job candidates and their relationships at home. “If a man can’t manage his own life, he can’t manage a business,” says Cathy, who says he would probably fire an employee or terminate an operator who “has been sinful or done something harmful to their family members.”
The parent company asks people who apply for an operator license to disclose marital status, number of dependents and involvement in “community, civic, social, church and/or professional organizations.”
But Danielle Alderson, 30, a Baltimore operator, says some fellow franchisees find that Chick-fil-A butts into its workers’ personal lives a bit much. She says she can’t hire a good manager who, say, moonlights at a strip club because it would irk the company. “We are watched very closely by Chick-fil-A,” she says. “It’s very weird.”
Is it legal? There are no federal laws that prohibit companies from asking nosy questions about religion and marital status during interviews. Most companies don’t because it can open them up to discrimination claims, says James Ryan, a spokesman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Chick-fil-A has more freedom to ask whatever it wants of franchisees because they are independent contractors and not necessarily subject to federal employment discrimination laws. (Employees, however, may sue under those laws.)
Chick-fil-A, the corporate parent, has been sued at least 12 times since 1988 on charges of employment discrimination, according to records in U.S. District Courts. Aziz Latif, a former Chick-fil-A restaurant manager in Houston, sued the company in 2002 after Latif, a Muslim, says he was fired a day after he didn’t participate in a group prayer to Jesus Christ at a company training program in 2000. The suit was settled on undisclosed terms.
The company might face more suits if it didn’t screen potential hires and operators so carefully. Many Chick-fil-A job candidates must endure a yearlong vetting process that includes dozens of interviews. Ty Yokum, the training manager for the chain, sat through 7 interviews and didn’t get the job. He reapplied in 1991 and was subjected to another 17 interviews–the final one lasted five hours–and was hired. Bureon Ledbetter, Chick-fil-A’s general counsel, says the company works hard to select people like Yokum, who “fit.” “We want operators who support the values here,” Ledbetter says.
Those who do say they like the member-of-the-club feel that goes along with working with Chick-fil-A. “It is very difficult to get in, but once you’re in, you’re in for life,” says Donald Elam, a Chick-fil-A franchisee in Superstition Springs, Ariz.: “I tell all my people, ‘I’m not working for Chick-fil-A; I’m working for the Lord.'”