Several years ago, I wrote a letter to Truett Cathy extolling the benefits of bringing a Chick-Fil-A restaurant to the interstate interchange near my hometown and surprisingly I heard back from him a week and a half later. While we didn’t get the restaurant (yet), I got a very nice letter from him and a comment or two about his fondness for our county where he had frequently come as a boy. He also included a signed copy of his autobiography, which I read and thoroughly appreciated.
That Truett Cathy led a good life is not something that most people could dispute and I knew this morning when I heard the news that he had passed away at the ripe age of 93 that an outpouring of commentary, testimonies and tributes would be forthcoming. I’m going to add my own words to those of far greater writers than myself because Mr. Cathy has been inspirational to me in many ways. Contrary to what some might believe, I wasn’t just raised on barbecue, despite growing up in the nucleus of a barbecue restaurant family. For as long as I can remember, Chic-Fil-A has also been a part of my life in some way or another and in every way, a good thing.
When I was growing up, I would sometimes go to the Atlanta Farmer’s Market with my Dad to pick up needed supplies for the restaurant. Invariably, we would stop at the original Dwarf House in Hapeville, Georgia for breakfast or lunch, depending on the time of day and it was there I experienced what has to be some of the best tasting chicken anywhere, filleted or otherwise. Every kid that has ever eaten at a Dwarf House has made it a point to enter through the famous “Dwarf Door”, a kid-sized entrance usually affixed to the more traditional arm of the restaurant chain. I certainly did and years later, I introduced my own son to the “door” and enjoyed watching him experience this rite of tradition. It’s not unusual to see adults use the door too, no doubt remembering their own sojourns to the famous restaurant.
The first time I saw Mr. Cathy in person, he was coming into our barbecue restaurant to get something to eat. My grandfather greeted him warmly and while he ate his barbecue sandwich, they sat at the table and chatted amicably about all kinds of things…weather, people they both knew and restaurant talk. When he left, I asked my grandfather who the man was and he told me “that was Mr. Chick-Fil-A” himself, Truett Cathy”. All I could think about was that I wished we had had a special door for him to come through too.
He was very down to earth and although I don’t remember what he was driving, it was just some ordinary vehicle, nothing special. He gave the appearance of just being some guy stopping in for a sandwich and nothing at all like the head of the company that put the chicken sandwich on the map.
I associate a lot of things with the restaurant chain that Mr. Cathy founded that I don’t ascribe to any other major chain restaurant: consistently good food, friendly customer service, a clean, inviting atmosphere and value for your money. These form the core of a good restaurant. With Chic-Fil-A, I would also give them gold stars for being supportive of their communities, for being supportive of family values and for running their operation on a set of core beliefs that are firmly anchored in Christianity. They also don’t try to put cheese on everything they serve like some chain restaurants now do. That in itself means a great deal to me personally.
This isn’t anything new for Chic-Fil-A and it isn’t some business model that founder Truett Cathy dreamed up as a way to get people to “Eat Mor Chikin”. It is pretty much the philosophy that has guided him his entire life and which he applied to his restaurant business when he opened it in 1946. It apparently has worked because his family’s business has grown steadily each year and his children have carried on with the same business model, to much success.
Truett Cathy was so much more than just a great restauranteur though.
Charitable foundations and contributions to numerous organizations that do good works in communities everywhere. Providing opportunities for young people to get a leg up on their career and their education. Helping to provide stable and secure environments for children in need of help. He even taught Sunday School for over 5 decades in his Jonesboro church.
Truett Cathy embodied the spirit of service to his fellow man. Chick-Fil-A was a business and quite successful as that but in his mind, it was a tool that enabled him to give back to his community and those all over. The more he made, the more he gave and the more he gave, the better were the lives of the people he touched. His formula for success was not in the recipe for his chick filet sandwich but in how he served others and led by example. His business model was a model for good Christian living as it reflected strongly the values he embodied. He was an original servant leader.
Chic-Fil-A has long used their business as a force for good in the communities that they serve and they have built a successful business by applying those ideals to their business but they don’t force it on others. I have seen neither Bibles on the dining tables nor the Cross hanging over the customer service counter. What I frequently have seen in their restaurants are families, friends and lots of kids enjoying a tasty, economical meal in a friendly environment staffed by workers who seem to enjoy being there. Christian values don’t have to be forced on people but people know good when they see it.
Sure, they have a quirk or two. They never open on Sunday and they serve kids meals that don’t come with the latest cool toy but rather with something educational in the bag. We all know why most kids want to go to McDonald’s and its not because McDonald’s has better chicken nuggets. While there was many a Sunday that a craving for a Chick-Fil-A sandwich arose, I always respected his decision not to open on that day so that his employees could enjoy the day with their families. Did he lose a lot of money by making that decision? Maybe he did but he gained a lot of respect for doing it and probably made his employee’s lives a little better for it.
This morning, a co-worker stopped by Chick-Fil-A and brought us all a chicken biscuit, which I enjoyed a great deal. I think a lot of people from all over probably did as well and I like to think that in some way, we all shared one last meal with Mr. Cathy. Even though he was not there in person the many times I entered one of his establishments, I always felt his presence there in the quality, consistency and atmosphere.
Enjoying a chicken sandwich, biscuit or a nugget is just one way that he will live on in my mind but I know that among the millions of lives he touched, influenced and even changed, he will be remembered for so much more. Thank you, Mr. Cathy.