They say it's harder to get a Chick-fil-A franchise than it is to get into Harvard, and the numbers bear that out.

Fewer than 1 percent of Chick-fil-A franchise applicants who make it past initial screening will ultimately become an owner/operator with the company. Compare that with a 4.5 percent admission rate at Harvard last year. 

Wanting to know more, I reached out to both the franchise team at Chick-fil-A and some of its "owner/operators," which is what the company calls its franchisees.

The most striking thing I learned: the single, key question that Chick-fil-A asks applicants over and over, in interview after interview. 

That deceptively simple question is: "Why do you want to own a Chick-fil-A franchise restaurant?"

Yes, you might expect them to ask this question. But again and again and again? Over an interview process that can easily take six months or a year or more?

The reason, explained Maureen Donahue, executive director of franchisee selection for Chick-fil-A, is that they expect that a potential franchisee's answer will change. And the way in which they change over the process tells you much more than you might expect.

"There are all kinds of layers that we can extract from that kind of a question," Donahue told me. "We're always curious what they come to the table with, but definitely how the responses shift and mature."

Chick-fil-A's franchise arrangement is unusual for several reasons: 

  • The financial threshold to get into their program is tiny compared to competing restaurants: a total of $10,000 (of which $5,000 is a refundable deposit), versus hundreds of thousands or more to buy into competing chains.
  • Chick-fil-A owner-operators are required to give their "full-time best efforts" to their franchise, which means you can't land a Chick-fil-A franchise, hire a bunch of managers, and become a passive investor.
  • Most Chick-fil-A franchisees are limited to owning only one restaurant. (You can even quibble with the word "owning," because franchisees don't get any equity in their restaurants.) They can't sell them or pass them down to their family. If they decide they no longer want the franchise, Chick-fil-A just takes it back.

Still, it's highly competitive, and a lengthy process. Take a look at the compendium of applicants' experiences on Glassdoor, for example.

According to QSR Magazine, restaurants have the greatest per-store revenue figures by far of any restaurant chain: $4.17 million a year per store. For context, McDonald's comes in fifth at $2.77 million.

That said, it's clear that when Chick-fil-A asks applicants its repetitive "Why do you want to do this?" question, they don't hope to hear an answer like "For the money."

Instead, Chick-fil-A says it looks for five things in owner/operators: character, chemistry, and competence ("the 3 C's"), along with entrepreneurial spirit and a growth mindset.

We'll dig a bit deeper into those criteria in a separate article. But for now, it's fascinating how they believe that asking the same key question, over and over and over, can lead to important insights.

Frankly, it sounds like the kind strategy any business owner or entrepreneur should consider -- and the kind of question you should copy when you're recruiting or hiring.  

  • What are the key things you're looking for in an employee?
  • What are the one or two questions that would give you good insight into whether an applicant has those attributes?
  • How can you ask those questions (or similar ones) over and over, and track how the candidate's answers change as he or she learns more about you and your company?
  • And bluntly, finally (repeatedly?): "Why do you want to work for us?"

"I see it as I look at all the interview notes as I'm preparing to meet with them for the last time," Donahue told me. "It's tremendous to see what they've learned about themselves, and the brand, and what the work actually means. It actually becomes more profound in most cases, as they respond later in the selection process."

Correction: An earlier version of this column identified Chick-Fil-A executive director of franchisee selection Maureen Donahue by the wrong first name.