The History of Chick-fil-A

Who doesn’t love Chick-fil-A? Their raging popularity has me convinced that there aren’t many who don’t enjoy their chicken. The history of Chick-fil-A is fascinating. It all starts at a little known restaurant in Fayetteville, GA.

Dwarf Grill

The history of Chick-fil-A is fascinating. It all started with S. Truett Cathy and a little restaurant called the Dwarf Grill. This was Cathy’s first restaurant venture. He opened right next to a Ford production plant in 1946 and enjoyed the constant stream of patrons. Dwarf Grill was renamed to Dwarf House and it has held that name ever since. 

This is a special restaurant in the history of Chick-fil-A. This is where Cathy developed and tested his original chicken sandwich. You can still find the chicken sandwich on their menu today. However, that is where the similarities end. 

The Dwarf House is a diner that is open 24 hours a day six days a week. They serve classic menu items like burgers, fries, collard greens, Mac and cheese, coconut ice box pie and a hot brown. They say if you have to ask what a hot brown is, you need to try one. 

It is a unique and special restaurant. They have a strong family vibe. Cathy used to say people would come to the restaurant when they weren’t hungry just because they needed comfort. There are a few customers that have been coming around so often over the years that they are truly considered family. These few people have been given access to the coveted blue menu by the Cathy family. 

The blue menu allows a person to enjoy 1946 prices in today’s world. This means you can get a hamburger for 15 cents or a steak plate for 65 cents. Incredible!

After tremendous success with the Dwarf House restaurant, Cathy opened the very first Chick-fil-A in 1967. The rest is, as they say, history.

S. Truett Cathy

S. Truett Cathy is the founder of Chick-fil-A. He has a tremendous story that took him from Dwarf House to a major chicken empire. Cathy died September 8, 2014 at the age of 93. He had a passion for family focused life, a heart for his employees and a profound love for his customers. 

A Humble Start Selling Coca-Cola

From a very young age it was clear that Cathy had the entrepreneurial spark. At the age of 8 he sold Coca-Cola door to door. He’d buy a six pack for 25 cents and then sell them for 5 cents each. One of his neighbors would sit on her porch drinking Coca-Cola, but she wasn’t drinking one of his Cokes. He had to find a way to add value to his product to convince her to buy from him. 

One day she suggested that he chill his Cokes and then she’d buy. He shaved some ice off his mother’s icebox to chill the Cokes. He had many people, including his neighbor, lining up to buy his product. This was where he learned the joy that comes from making customers happy. This was a lesson that became very important to the history of Chick-fil-A.

Lessons Learned Slinging Papers

As a teenager, Cathy had a job delivering papers. He said that he treated each paper like he was delivering it to the governor’s mansion. He wanted to make sure they never had to dig through the bushes to find their paper. It is incredible that a teen would have that work ethic. Many teens would simply get the job done. That attention to detail set Cathy apart.

When he opened Dwarf House with his brother, they continued that focus on the customer. He often said they built their business and made friends at the same time. They tried to meet the needs of their customers whenever they could. 

If they heard that one of their customers was in the hospital, or a family member of a customer had passed away, they would send food to the family. Cathy had a genuine concern for people and made business a personal connection and valued every relationship. 

Company Culture

When Cathy was looking for Franchisees later in life, he looked for people that shared his values of customer service. In his book, Eat Mor Chickin: Inspire More People: “Your voice and facial expressions would change. You’d be eager to serve the president well, make sure he had a clean table, then go up and see if everything was all right, or if he needed anything. If we’re willing to do that for the president, why not treat every customer that well?”

I’m sure by now you have heard the classic, “my pleasure,” at a Chick-fil-A restaurant. Have you ever wondered where that came from? 

At one point Cathy had visited a five star hotel. He thanked an employee who responded with, “my pleasure.” Cathy felt the sincerity and it hit him hard. He couldn’t shake that experience. Cathy then asked all restaurant owners, team members and corporate staff to respond with “my pleasure” whenever someone said thank you. 

He later said, “You expect that from a five-star hotel, but to have teenagers in a fast-food atmosphere saying it’s their pleasure to serve—that’s a real head-turner.”

All About The Employee

It is hard to find companies in today’s world that focus on the employee. Many of Cathy’s business decisions were made with his employees in mind. From his very first restaurant, they always were closed on Sunday. Cathy repeatedly said he wanted a day for his employees to rest and be able to spend time with family and friends. No matter what, employees knew they’d have that one day a week. When Chick-fil-A started rapidly expanding, the malls pressured Cathy to open on Sunday. He flat out refused. 

Many employees made a career out of their Chick-fil-A opportunity. Cathy treated his employees with kindness and respect. One former Dwarf House employee who was with them for 45 years said, “I’ve never heard Mr. Cathy raise his voice. I don’t remember him arguing with anybody. I’ve never heard him tell somebody to do something. He would ask. He’d say, ‘Zelma, would you make me such-and-such a pie? Is that a problem?’ Well, you had to do it, because he asked so nice.”

All About Family

Cathy grew up watching his mom cook in the kitchen. They ran a boarding house and all of the kids pitched in. He was particularly close to his brother Ben. After WWII, they decided to form a partnership and go into the restaurant business. Dwarf house was their project. Business was booming. They steadily built up a loyal clientele. Ben and Cathy rotated 12 hour shifts. 

In 1949, Ben and his brother Horace flew from Georgia to Chattanooga. They never made it. The plane crashed and Cathy lost both of his brothers. He later said, “The loss hit me particularly hard on Monday morning, when I saw where Ben made out the report sheet on Saturday afternoon in good health, I realized again that he would never be back, and my tears flowed.”

Ben had a wife and daughter. Cathy bought him out of the business and then made sure that his wife and daughter had whatever they needed for several years afterward. 

Family was everything to Cathy. He made sure to involve his kids in the business. They pitched in at the Dwarf House and found ways to spend time together and strengthen those relationships. One reporter once asked Cathy how he wanted to be remembered. His response? He wanted to be remembered as someone who had his priorities in order.

The History of Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwiches

Did you know that in addition to being a play on words, the “A” in “Chick-fil-A” actually stands for grade A and top quality. It is what Chick-fil-A strives for every time you visit a restaurant. That quality is displayed clearly with the chicken sandwich. 

The chicken sandwich at Chick-fil-A is a no frills affair. It is really incredibly simple, and it is integral to the history of Chick-fil-A. You have a hand breaded chicken breast that is fried in peanut oil, two pickles and a buttered and toasted brioche bun. That’s it. So why is this sandwich so incredibly popular?

I think there is beauty in simplicity. When Cathy worked in the Dwarf House. He spent a lot of time perfecting the secret recipe for the chicken sandwich. Once he felt he had it right, he folded up the piece of paper and put it in his pocket. That piece of paper is locked in a safe at Chick-fil-A’s headquarters. Only one person knows the combination and they aren’t sharing.

All About The Oil

Chick-fil-A has used peanut oil for frying its chicken. It was an incredible choice that has allowed their chicken to have great flavor and be healthier than other fried chicken. Peanut oil has a higher smoke point so it doesn’t break down as easily when frying food. This means that it holds onto its nutritional benefit doesn’t begin breaking down either. The flavor peanut oil imparts to fried food is incredible. It is one ingredient in Chick-fil-A chicken that is nearly impossible for other restaurants to replicate. Not many restaurants would embrace peanut oil the way Chick-fil-A has. 

In 1989 the history of Chick-fil-A continued by unveiling the grilled chicken sandwich. In 2014 they reintroduced the sandwich. They use a proprietary grill that they developed in house to give backyard flavor to every grilled chicken sandwich. They also use this grill for the grilled nuggets.

The Fries

The waffle fries at Chick-fil-A are the most ordered menu item. They sell more orders of fries than chicken sandwiches. Chick-fil-A first introduced the waffle fry in 1985. They were very unique in a landscape of stick-shaped fries. Customers liked them because of the ability to hold more ketchup or sauce on the fry.

All waffle fries and hash browns served in Chick-fil-A’s restaurants all come from a family farm in Washington state. The Johnson family has been farming since 1906 in the Columbia river basin.  Nick Johnson is a fourth generation farmer. He said, “It’s rewarding to know we did our part, and that’s going to put food in someone’s belly.” Nick’s dad has said that his dad and grandpa would be proud of the farm-restaurant relationship and partnership.

All of Chick-fil-A’s waffle fries have one thing in common. They are incredibly, mind-numbingly simple. Just canola oil, potato and salt. Many will say this is by design. Because of the simple flavors they become the perfect backdrop for whatever sauce you want to dunk into. 

I’m honestly super surprised by the research on this. I wouldn’t have thought that Chick-fil-A’s fries were this popular. Honestly, I can take them or leave them. I rarely get excited about them and usually just eat them because they are there. For me there are too many variables with the fries that really impact my ability to enjoy them. Sometimes they are too soggy and other times they aren’t salty enough. Also forget about it if they are cold… These fries can be really rough when the get cold. That being said, people love them and embrace them en masse. 

The Legend of the Sweet Potato Fry

I stumbled across this little tidbit on Chick-fil-A’s own website. The source for their article was Shona Johnson, the Senior Manager, Culinary, Product Strategy and Development. According to Shona, they tried a few different styles of sweet potato fry. One variant was a straight fry that had a cinnamon marshmallow dipping sauce. They also tried a sweet potato hash brown for breakfast. The most popular with the guests was, you guessed it, the sweet potato waffle fry. Guests said they had a better look and taste. It also helped that it naturally tied in with the existing waffle fry on the menu.

This all took place from May to August in 2011. The test originally took place in Athens, Georgia. They then expanded the test to Philadelphia, Oklahoma City and Memphis. Customers really liked them. However, they were more expensive than the standard fry and enthusiasm waned after the initial buzz wore off. They ultimately decided to kill the project. 

The Sauce

Let’s get saucy for a moment. I had a lot of fun reading about the different sauces that Chick-fil-A offers. It’s actually quite incredible. Chick-fil-A’s iconic Chick-fil-A sauce was “invented” by accident in the early 1980s in Fredericksburg, Virginia. A restaurant team member mixed barbecue sauce with a honey mustard sauce that Hugh Fleming, a franchise operator, had created. The rest was history and this sauce went viral!

In 2017 restaurants ordered 500 million individual packets of Chick-fil-A sauce. In the Southwest, Chick-fil-A sauce reigns supreme. They consumed more of the sauce than any other region in the country. Barbecue and Polynesian sauce were the second and third place finishers in terms of sauce popularity. 

The Biscuits

I feel I can’t do an episode on the history of Chick-fil-A without talking about their legendary biscuits. Many fast food restaurants have biscuits on the menu. However, in my humble opinion, Chick-fil-A takes the crown as the top restaurant biscuit. Hands down. I will battle anyone who says otherwise. These biscuits are flaky and super buttery. They almost melt in my mouth whenever I eat one. Here is a little more info about one of my favorite Chick-fil-A menu items.

In 2018, Chick-fil-A served hungry customers 133 million biscuits. 20.3 million of those were served in the Atlanta area alone. I think I’ve found my people! 

Biscuits take longer to make than any other breakfast item on Chick-fil-A’s menu. Each one is handmade. From start to finish it takes an employee 30 minutes to mix, roll and bake these biscuits. The lucky team member assigned to biscuit duty will show up before 5:30am and will start baking. They continue baking until the restaurant stops serving breakfast. 

There is always one tray of biscuits that is ready to serve. Each tray holds 20 biscuits. When one tray is pulled from the oven, another is put in. This dance continues from 6am-10:30am. Chick-fil-A also ensures that a healthy dose of butter is smeared on top of each biscuit before it hits the oven. That way butter sinks down into the biscuit as it rises. If you haven’t ever had a Chick-fil-A biscuit, seriously drop everything and go. Go now!

Truett’s Luau

The history of Chick-fil-A wouldn’t be complete without talking about Truett’s Luau. This is an interesting concept conceived by none other than Cathy himself. They opened in 2013 in Fayetteville, Georgia. This was a passion project for Cathy. He was 92 years young and had just stepped aside as Chick-fil-A’s CEO. What a better time to start a new restaurant venture.

Like Dwarf House, this restaurant is still clearly connected to Chick-fil-A. You can even find the classic chicken sandwich on the menu, as well as the mythical sweet potato waffle fries. 

As the name suggests, this is a Hawaiian themed restaurant. You can order a variety of seafood items. From a calamari appetizer to a fish sandwich, they have you covered. Cathy handpicked every decoration and spent countless hours trying each menu item until they got everything just right. What an interesting concept for a restaurant!

Final Thoughts on the History of Chick-fil-A

The history of Chick-fil-A continues on. S. Truett Cathy was onto something. He of course made an amazing chicken sandwich. However, his life was much more than that. I could have done a whole episode on the man himself. He truly lived his values and principles. His everyday life, and the chicken empire he started, were a direct reflection of that. I think we can definitely say that he had his priorities straight.

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The History of Chick-fil-A, My Pleasure!
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