Have Tent and Trumpet, Will Travel

UPDATED: January 12, 2011
PUBLISHED: January 12, 2011

It’s 6:03 a.m., and Dan Cathy, the president and COO of Chick-fil-A, one of the largest privately owned restaurant chains in the country, is standing on a chair in his pajamas blaring a trumpet. A handful of employees are cheering and clapping and banging pots and pans. People are hugging and high-fiving.

Sounds like things got a little crazy at the company retreat, right?

Strangely enough, this is a part of Dan Cathy’s job. Something he repeats several times throughout the year. This time out, he’s in Warrensville Heights, Ohio, just outside Cleveland, where 200-plus people have camped overnight outside the newest Chick-fil-A franchise. They’re hoping to be among the first 100 customers who’ll win free Chick-fil-A for a year.

Known internally as the First 100, these events have become a valued part of the Chick-fil-A culture. Of course, there’s nothing that says Dan Cathy has to attend these grand openings, much less that he has to actually camp out in a tent with the crowd, but Cathy wouldn’t have it any other way.

The eldest son of company founder S. Truett Cathy, 57-year-old Dan is a visible and eager ambassador of the Chick-fil-A brand. You won’t find him hiding out in his office or attending endless meetings about revenue stream and point of purchase. No, he prefers to be out there among his customers and his employees, shaking hands and spreading goodwill.

“The purpose of the First 100 events is to build a sense of community, to set the tone for the business,” says Cathy. At a cost of around $30,000 apiece—not including the cost of hiring security and a DJ and feeding the crowd throughout the day—it’s an expensive proposition, but Cathy doesn’t mind throwing a little cash around when it comes to satisfying his customers. Which is why Chick-fil-A is the only fast-food chain to use brand-name products in its kitchens, like Hershey’s chocolate, Dole pineapple and costly refined peanut oil for their fryers. “You’d never see these brands in a restaurant run by an accountant,” admits Cathy with a hint of braggadocio.

Satisfying customers goes beyond using quality ingredients. Staffers and managers also are encouraged to step from behind counters and outside the back office to spend time greeting customers, clearing trays, giving free ice cream cones to screaming kids.

“Too often leaders get carried away with results and forget about relationships,” Cathy says. “Customer service is important to us because it’s important to the customer. There is a high demand, but low supply. So we see it as if we’re filling a demand.”

Clearly, it takes more than tasty chicken sandwiches to attract such a committed following as those camped out at the Warrensville Heights location. Several dozen have driven hundreds of miles to be there. Two of them are Jake and Libby Knupp, a retired couple who have attended dozens of First 100 events in several states. The Knupps have accumulated so many tickets from these events that they lock them in a safe, they told a reporter. And although they say they love the food, friendly staff and clean facilities, they really appreciate being part of the Chick-fil-A “family,” a fact acknowledged when they received a huge cake to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary at what also happened to be their 50th Chick-fil-A opening.

So committed to quality customer service is Dan Cathy that he’s writing a book about it called Making 2nd Mile 2nd Nature. The title refers to going the extra, or second, mile, and not only meeting but exceeding customer expectations.

Cathy frequently praises qualities like honor and respect and servitude. He talks a lot about selfless acts and stewardship. “Business isn’t just about making money, but about setting examples and teaching people,” says Cathy, who includes his father among his role models.

The Cathy family’s values are at the heart of every decision the company makes, including their most controversial—being closed on Sundays, a strict policy since the first restaurant opened in 1946. Giving employees one of the busiest days of the week off may sound like bad business. But, at a time when so much of the competition is struggling to stay in the black, Chick-fil-A is on the verge of its best year ever, with sales predicted to reach the $3.2 billion record set in 2009.

Among Cathy’s keys to success are having a product or service that’s relevant to your market, a good financial model to support the product or service, and the acumen to put it all together. Equally important, says Cathy, is being a regular in your own business. Given that he’s on the road visiting locations throughout the country three days out of the week, that’s hardly an issue for this executive. In fact, when the CBS show Undercover Boss asked him to appear on the pilot episode, he had to say no because he was so well known he wouldn’t have been able to go incognito.

Reiterating that point is Erik Amick, operator of a recently opened franchise in Silver Spring, Md.: “What I love about Dan and the Cathy family is how personally engaged they are. Their fingerprints are on almost everything.”

Anyone who knows Cathy or spends time with him might also add that his accomplishments stem from his willingness to do anything his employees do, be it picking up trash in the parking lot or clearing customers’ tables. Well, that, and his charisma. Seriously, the man is so engaging he could sell chicken to a vegan.

The First 100 is just one event aimed at creating “remarkable experiences that customers will talk about,” Cathy says. Another experience, which Cathy and his managers perform regularly, is known as the backstage tour, wherein customers are taken back into the kitchen to see the culinary inner workings, including fresh lemons that will be squeezed for lemonade, the fresh chicken breasts used for all of the sandwiches and those expensive brand-name products.

Another experience, which Cathy plans to package up as a kit so all franchises can do it, is daddy-daughter date night. At this event, fathers and their little princesses take a few laps around the building in a stretch limo, walk across a red carpet, have their photos taken by a professional photographer, then order off the menu and just sit together and talk. Fathers are even given a discussion guide in case their minds draw a blank.

In its efforts to reach out to customers, Chick-fil-A has also made social media a priority. “It’s definitely changing retail,” says Cathy, who not only has his own Web page, but his own Twitter account and blog. “It makes getting to know the customer easier and faster. But you have to be sure to reallocate the money to fund it. We’re currently taking money out of conventional TV and print and putting it toward social media.”

For the gregarious Dan Cathy, the job doesn’t come without its share of pressure. He’s always mindful of his responsibility of caretaking a company his 89-year-old father started from a single restaurant.

“I feel enormous pressure to do well,” says Cathy. “When I was little, my dad gathered the family around and asked us to pray because he had put up the mortgage to start the business. So there’s a lot at stake, and I don’t want to let him down. But my dad tells me he’s proud of me all the time. Naturally, he also tells me when I do something he doesn’t agree with.”