Some companies come out of nowhere and are suddenly everywhere. Starbucks, for example, was formed in 1971 and now has nearly 15,000 branches in the United States, and a similar number around the world. Other businesses grow more slowly but also more steadily, cementing themselves into communities and showing no signs of age even as they stay true to their founding values.
That's what happened to Chick-fil-A. The company was founded in 1946 and now has more than 2,400 branches across the country. Those branches earn an average of about $4.8 million a year each, nearly double the income of a typical McDonalds outlet. The company will soon become the third largest fast food chain in America. That slow but steady success is down to four principles.
1. A Dedication to Customer Service
Fast food firms aren't known for their great customer service. Customers can expect to be served by surly teenagers on minimum wage who are more interested in having fun with their friends than making sure that the burger is fresh or the name is spelled right on the Frappuccino cup. Chick-fil-A, though, is known for both super-fast efficiency and its staff's friendly manner. In an interview with Buzzfeed, David Farmer, the company's vice president of restaurant experience, said that he was looking for "pit crew efficiency, but where you feel like you just got hugged in the process."
Chick-fil-A consistently outscores other fast-food chains for satisfaction, positive buzz, and likelihood of purchase while still racking up as many as 2,600 transactions on a busy day in New York.
2. Powerful Marketing
While McDonalds has struggled to bring the company's iconic clown up to date and keep Ronald McDonalds relevant, Chick-fil-A's "Eat Mor Chikin" slogan is still going strong nearly 25 years after its launch. The use of cows urging customers to eat some other animal is an unusual approach for a food chain. Restaurants usually try to hide the source of their products and pretend that meat isn't part of a process that runs from farm to slaughterhouse. Chick-fil-A's approach is both honest and witty, and it tells a story about who the company is and what it does. Customers identify with cows portrayed as desperate underdogs under threat from the likes of McDonalds and Taco Bell.
The Cows have been inducted into the Madison Avenue Walk of Fame. On Cow Appreciation Day, branches give free food to customers dressed as cows. The company's advertising manager is known as the "Cow czar." It's a powerful piece of branding that still resonates.
3. A Specialized Menu
Visit a Chick-fil-A and there's only one kind of food you're going to want to buy: a chicken sandwich. Sure, the breakfast might have a bit of variety and the menu does include nuggets, but no one goes to a Chick-fil-A for the English muffin. They go for the chicken sandwich.
There is a lesson there for other businesses. After conquering one niche, it's tempting to branch out and try to steal some other company's lunch. Chick-fil-A could have started pitching burgers or promoting its coffee. It hasn't done that. Instead, it's stayed known for doing one thing better than anyone else. If you want a chicken sandwich, you go to Chick-fil-A. If you want any other kind of sandwich, you go to Subway. As long as there's enough demand for that one product, the company will be fine.
4. Values and Authenticity
But the most important feature of Chick-Fil-A's success has been its decision to hold onto its values. The company's founder, Truett Cathy, was a Southern Baptist, and the business is still family-owned. The firm's corporate purpose is "to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A."
Those values aren't easy to hold on to. After working seven days a week in restaurants that never closed, Truett Cathy decided that his restaurant would close on Sundays. They still do. While other fast food chains never shut their doors, Chick-fil-A declines a day's income and ensures that its workers get a day of rest every week.
The result is that while the company might lose some revenue, it also gains authenticity. Customers can see that this a business that cares about more than earning money. If it cares so much about values that it's willing to lose income, customers will assume that those values include a quality product. Sometimes, standing by your beliefs really can be good for business.