ATLANTA (RNS) Chick-fil-A is finally crossing the road.

A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Ohio, during early morning.

A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Ohio, during early morning. Photo courtesy of Mark Turnauckas via Flickr


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The iconic chicken chain, as well known for its conservative heritage as its savory eats, is recalibrating its moral and culinary compass. It wants to go from old school to almost cool. It wants to evolve from a place where gays once picketed to a place where they’ll feel comfortable going to eat. It wants to broaden the brand as it expands nationally and plows into the Millennial-driven urban arena.

Above all: it wants to be a serious player on fast food’s biggest stage.

CEO Dan Cathy’s comments condemning gay marriage in 2012 set off a store picketing and a social media firestorm. Now he has backed away from such public pronouncements that mix personal opinion on social issues with corporate policy.

“All of us become more wise as time goes by,” he said, apologetically. “We sincerely care about all people.”

While Cathy’s comments didn’t hurt short-term business — and even helped it — Chick-fil-A executives recognize they may have done longer-term damage to the brand’s image at the very time it was eyeing major growth outside its friendly Southern market.

The national growth is about to go into overdrive — and it has a huge, new product platform behind it. Its biggest-ever new product roll-out will be announced Tuesday: a grilled chicken line for which the company has spent the past 12 years testing more than 1,000 grilled chicken recipes and developing such super-secret grilling equipment that executives won’t let it be photographed.

Chick-fil-A’s food, long-regarded as extra savory but nutritionally naughty, is going through an industry unprecedented “cleaning” cycle, with an ultimate aim of improving its brand image with trend-setting Millennials.

CEO Dan Cathy’s comments condemning gay marriage in 2012 set off a store picketing and a social media firestorm.

Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s comments condemning gay marriage in 2012 set off a store picketing and a social media firestorm. Photo courtesy of Chick-fil-A


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Last month, it announced plans to sell only antibiotic-free chicken within five years. It’s testing the removal of high fructose corn syrup from all dressings and sauces and artificial ingredients from its bun.
The once-tiny, regional chain just surpassed giant KFC to become the nation’s largest chicken chain in domestic sales. But along with this sales and geographical growth comes a new social consciousness.

That’s not by accident, said Christopher Muller, professor of hospitality at Boston University. “The politics of their Southern Baptist values will not transcend their core markets,” he said.

Chick-fil-A’s socially conservative agenda, which formally led the company to donate millions to charitable groups opposed to gay marriage, has been tempered. This, just as the company aims to expand into Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Southern hospitality must give way to urban reality as the 1,800-store chain moves to compete with big city success stories like McDonald’s, Panera Bread and Chipotle.

If nothing else, Cathy has listened. In 2012, Cathy not only heard from some unhappy consumers about his comments against gay marriage, but also from some store operators and employees. Now, he said, “I’m going to leave it to politicians and others to discuss social issues.”

One past critic has even become an unlikely fan. “Dan and I have an ongoing friendship,” said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of the gay rights advocacy group Campus Pride. “I am appreciative for the common ground we have established in treating all people with dignity and respect — including LGBT people.”

Which means Chick-fil-A can focus on what matters most: the food and growth. The privately held company, whose sales last year reached $5.1 billion — up 9.3 percent, reports the research firm Technomic — may rank among the most intriguing growth stories in fast food. Imagine this: A typical Chick-fil-A racked up annual sales of about $3.3 million last year, while a typical McDonald’s posted sales of about $2.5 million. Never mind that Chick-fil-A is closed Sundays.

The Cathy family inside a Chick-fil-A store. Photo courtesy of Chick-fil-A

The Cathy family inside a Chick-fil-A store. Photo courtesy of Chick-fil-A


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“The next big thing is urbanization,” says Cathy, 61, who tools around on his Harley-Davidson in his spare time. “That’s where the future is heading.”

So, the company that has spent 68 years building its stores inside suburban malls and near big-box retailers is mostly tossing out those plans. Now it wants to focus on big cities and big-city dwellers.

“The challenge in business is to stay ahead of the curve,” Cathy says. For Boomers, fast food was all about taste and price, he says. But for Millennials, he notes, it’s also about local sourcing, product quality and worker rights. For them, he said, “it’s not just a product story any more — but the whole story.”

Which is why Chick-fil-A removed yellow dye from its chicken soup late last year. And it’s why the chain has just begun testing a line of fruit smoothies made with spinach and carrots.

This is the same company whose chief spokesman is a cartoon cow whose singular message for almost two decades has never changed: “Eat Mor Chikin.” And it’s the company in which 93-year-old founder, S. Truett Cathy, Dan’s father, still keeps an expansive office, replete with photos of himself with George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Billy Graham and Pat Boone.

A spicy chicken sandwich at a Chick-fil-A restaurant.

A spicy chicken sandwich at a Chick-fil-A restaurant Photo courtesy of William F. Yurasko via Flickr


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

But if Chick-fil-A could frame a new photo of who matters most to the company, it might be someone such as 23-year-old Kelli Means-Cheeley. The Atlanta resident and recent college graduate stopped by a bustling Chick-fil-A near Atlanta’s airport and offered a thumbs-up after sampling the new grilled chicken. Healthy food ingredients are critical to Means-Cheeley, but, she says, “what’s also important to me is taste.”

A new line of iceberg lettuce-less salads, developed right before the company opened its new test kitchen, boosted annual salad sales by 50 percent to $250 million, said David Farmer, vice president of product strategy and development.

Until now, the key rule for new products was that they had to be “cravable,” Farmer said. While they still have to be cravable, he says, there’s an increasing emphasis on them also being healthy.

That, says Cathy, has prodded Chick-fil-A to be “more transparent.” Last year it began offering “back stage tours” of its restaurants –where regular customers can request tours of the kitchens.

Ultimately, the chain plans to make that new transparency more literal.

They want to open up the kitchens and allow customers to watch dough being rolled and salads being freshly chopped.

Chick-fil-A will open 108 restaurants this year — most of them urban and a good chunk of them in New York City.

The new urban locations will have much more natural wood. And some of the urban chefs are even replacing their old uniforms with snazzy chefs coats.

This new Chick-fil-A is striving to be very different from what was. “We’re one foot out of fast food,” Faulk said.

(Bruce Horovitz writes for USA Today.)

YS END HOROVITZ

33 Comments

  1. So, the Christian CEO, Dan Cathy, has decided to cave in and shut up, because making money trumps everything else. And he’s not alone in that belief.

    Just another quickie snapshot from a once-great nation that’s now on the very brink of divine judgment.

  2. Edward Borges-Silva

    All of the changes being implemented by Chick-Fil-A are laudable from a business perspective, but perhaps Mr. Cathy should never have entered the social policy discussion in the 1st place. While I agree with and respect the notion that all people should be treated with dignity, by expressing a biblical view on marriage and sexuality, and then (seemingly) retreating from it for purely business purposes, Chick-Fil-A has pulled a ‘World Vision’ in reverse. The scriptures advise us to be ‘slow to speak,’ and now we know why.

  3. The gay marriage brouhaha notwithstanding, Mr. Cathy did nothing wrong by holding a traditional view of marriage or voicing his opinion of it.
    What I most admire however is his willingness to become more wise “as time goes by”, share that transparency, and move his company ahead in a very creative, conscientious, and progressive manner.
    Social opinions aside I think we can all celebrate good business when we see it and CFA has proven it can do business very well.

    • All that is called progress…

      Progress toward what. Improvement.

      Or tyranny. At the time many considered the German national socialist party (the Nazis) to be quite progressive.

  4. Whatever the guy’s personal views did not spill out into the way his corporation operates, does business or treats its employees. I have no problem with them. I disagree with them, but he is not trying to impose them on people under his control. Mr. Cathy understands the corporate veil and why it must be maintained. He is reaping the benefits of incorporation by respecting its limitations as well.

    This is in sharp contrast with Hobby Lobby and the Greens. Steve Green acts as if the business is his own personal fiefdom and the employees are conscripted acolytes to his religious views. Mr. Green ignores the separation between business and personal affairs and undermines the purpose of incorporation.

    This is why Cathy is talking expansions into markets where majority views are sharply different with his own and Green is embroiled in legal hassles.

    • “Over the years, the company’s operators, its WinShape Foundation and the Cathy family have given millions of dollars to a variety of causes and programs, including scholarships that require a pledge to follow Christian values, a string of Christian-based foster homes and groups working to defeat same-sex marriage initiatives.

      “The company’s Christian culture and its strict hiring practices, which require potential operators to discuss their marital status and civic and church involvement, have attracted controversy before, including a 2002 lawsuit brought by a Muslim restaurant owner in Houston who said he was fired because he did not pray to Jesus with other employees at a training session. The suit was settled.”

      http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/us/30chick.html?_r=2&pagewanted=2

      • I stand corrected. The lawsuit is a clear sign of imposing religious culture on unwilling employees

        More examples of why corporate religious belief is a ridiculous concept designed to violate various labor and anti-discrimination laws. Cathy at least had the good business sense to settle out of court rather than waste judicial resources on nonsense arguments and quixotic political stands

        Personal donations and creating separate entities for his political/religious efforts at least shows he respects the corporate form. He can plausibly deny Chick Fil-A’s activities are related to his personal donations.

        • No one forces a person to work for another or a company. He or she always has the liberty to leave and find another job. Hence it is the worker who is doing the imposing not the other way around.

          • That argument would sound sensible if that was about labor relations and negotiations. But it isn’t. Your comment is both trite and ignorant.

            There are laws that are being violated.

    • “Mr. Green ignores the separation between business and personal affairs and undermines the purpose of incorporation.”

      Mr. Green’s stand is the very essence of the Christian life. The fact is that David (not Steve) Green, the CEO of Hobby Lobby does not leave his Christian values at the door when he enters his corporate offices and is not obligated to do so. He understands that is impossible for a true Christian to create a separation between his business and his life in Christ. You see, love of and obedience to God is not something one turns on and off as situations change. God’s Word has a name for that type of person–He is called a double-minded man, unstable in all of his ways. Mr. Green has always operated his business in a Godly manner because he loves people and understands that withholding the Truth of God’s Word from people is not love but rather leading them down a path to destruction, eternally separated from God. And he has been greatly blessed in many ways for doing so. What those who bend to political correctness do not seem to understand is that this life is temporal, and if we place the things of this world, that have no eternal value, above God’s will for our lives, we will have no excuse on the day that we take our last breath and stand before God. God’s Word says that in the last days many will fall away, and it seems to be happening on a regular basis.

      Incidentally, the following excerpt from the article above concerning Mr. Cathy and Chick-fil-A speaks for itself:

      “The privately held company, whose sales last year reached $5.1 billion — up 9.3 percent”…

      Christian people across this nation who respect the Word of God and refuse to give in to the government pushed debauchery of homosexuality and abortion are the very patrons that the Lord has used to make Mr. Cathy wildly successful…up until now.

      • That’s all well and good but its no excuse for torching “the corporate veil”. None of what you said is remotely relevant to the laws being flaunted or the legal concepts being attacked.

        Gawd! You Christians think you can justify any behavior (or violate any law) as long as you claim to be doing it for the Lord. That you have an automatic exemption from being criticized for bad behavior if you are doing it in the name of Jesus. What a load of bullcrap.

        Alleged religious belief is not a carte blanche to become a law unto one’s self. There is nothing principled, righteous or Christian about forcing others to follow your beliefs.

        No wonder its impossible to take you guys seriously when you talk of moral compasses or claim that others who do not share your dogmatic faith lack them. You have none to speak of.

        Any means are justified by Christian ends. Rules and codes of behavior are to be applied to other people, not the Christian. No consideration for fellow human beings. No moral backbone beyond advancing sectarian agenda (by force when possible). There is nothing righteous about forcing others to accept and conform your religious beliefs.

        Frankly, if you are not a business owner, civil servant or self-employed and you are a supporter of company-imposed religious practice, you are fool. You are supporting the right of your employer to treat you like personal property.

        • William Hudson

          Do not be concerned with the “the corporate veil”. You should be concerned with the veil that covers your eyes and pray that it will one day be removed so that you might come into the light of the Lord. Any “veil” that separates one from the ethical standards upon which American society has been based since its inception–namely the Judeo-Christian ethic that men of integrity look to–is not worthy of one’s consideration. No laws are being broken by operating a business with integrity and honesty, and the general public is much better off because of those business owners who do.

          • Laws and regulations are a mere inconvenience to Christians. Who by nature feel they are above the laws and morals of others.

            You make Christianity sound more like neo-nietzschean ramblings. Somehow the alleged righteous Christian is not subject to moral, ethical or legal considerations of others.

            And you guys have the nerve to accuse atheists of being self-centered and amoral. LMAO!!!

            You are living proof there is no such thing as “Judeo-Christian ethics”. All is permitted if you claim it is for the Lord. Any act, any harms done are automatically permitted if one claims to be doing it for the Lord.

            [btw there is no such thing as a Judeo-Christian either. Its just a sham term for Protestant beliefs]

            Btw there is no integrity and honesty in dragooning one’s employees as unwilling acolytes into your faith. Just selfishness, hubris and self-righteous arrogance. Thankfully we do not live in a theocracy. Freedom of religion means nobody ever has to take your religious views seriously under the color of law.

  5. All those who desire to live Godly in Christ Jesus WILL suffer persecution. This is a fact. To expect otherwise is to not believe the Word of God. He should have felt honored to be attacked for his stand with regard to God’s Word. Instead, he allowed this world to bully him. What would have happened if he had stayed consistent and refused to be quiet? Maybe he would have lost sales, lost money, lost customers, been hated. But he would have heard “well done, good and faithful servant.” What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? I hope he will pray about this and determine to speak up for the truth. Gay marriage is wrong, adultery is wrong, fornication is wrong – these are all sins in God’s eyes – one is not “worse” than another. Would he say that he finds adultery to be a sin? probably. Why can’t he stand up and say marriage outside of what God has ordained is a sin? I don’t understand.

    • Preaching loudly to impress others with your religiosity is a sin.

      Matthew 6:1-6

      “Beware of rpracticing your righteousness before other people in order sto be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

      Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may ube praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have vreceived their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. wAnd your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

      And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.

      But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door….”

    • I don’t see your point. I think Mr. Cathy has made it very clear that he personally holds to a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. However, it seems he is trying to keep the expression of those personal views from hijacking his business and the diverse team of employees who represent the company. It’s a sensible decision that in no way makes him unfaithful to his convictions and his God.

    • What’s so hard to understand, Noneya? Mr. Cathy is anti-gay. He donated millions every year to anti-gay Hate Cults, which in turn used his donations to hurt LGBT Americans with Mr. Cathy’s knowledge and consent. He was hoping to make a big business expansion at the time when he opened his mouth and blew out his brains, and that failed. Mr. Cathy told America that eating in his stores is an act meant to hurt LGBT Americans, and Americans listened. His business is suffering (spare readers any claims about his sales, as a privately held corporation no one but Mr. Cathy knows what his sales are) and he wants a “do-over.”

      What’s funny about his new menu is most of the major cooking magazines have published recipes for his sandwiches in acknowledgement of the fact their readers asked for it since they didn’t intend to go back to his stores–and, obviously–haven’t.

      Got it?

      • How can you claim people aren’t eating at his restaurants when you state the fact that as a privately held company, no one knows if sales have been affected in a positive or negative manner? Major cooking mags publish recipes from all sorts of companies…you are correlation is not logical and calls for a lot of assumptions. I think they passed KFC recently as the leading chicken fast food seller in the country, so business seems to be just fine. The evil CEO argument falls short…

        • How do we know they “passed KFC,” Mr. Richarsds? How do we know this isn’t Mr. Cathy promoting his anti-gay agenda? Didn’t you just agree “that as a privately held company, no one knows if sales have been affected in a positive or negative manner?”

          If his sales had “passed KFC,” he wouldn’t be trying desperately to reinvent his company. This is what I meant by “spare readers any claims.”

          • The only thing I found was a survey from 2011 which showed Chick Fil-A moved three times as many units than KFC but garnered 90% of the total sales figures.
            http://www.qsrmagazine.com/reports/qsr50-2012-chicken-segment-breakdown

            It doesn’t mean very much.

            KFC is literally an order of magnitude larger and has a major global reach. Chick Fil-A is purely regional with virtually no presence in the Northeast and Northwest.

  6. Almost completely off topic.

    I have to say that picture of the spicy chicken sandwich has got to be one of the most unappetizing pictures of food I have seen in some time.

    • There are very few of their stores anywhere near where I live, so I asked a foodie friend who lives in their territory. “Meh, and overpriced,” she said. Get the Cooks’ Illustrated recipe and make them yourself, it’s much, much better.

  7. So Mr. Cathy would you say that you stole money from the very folks who stood in long lines to support your decision, and you caused a good man Huckabee to back your cause. I think you definitely stole money, and to me that reaks of a pungent smell. I can see Huckabee was very visibly ticked off on his show tonight, because of how many folks he had organized to come out in full support of your decision and stance.

    I personally think you ought to just go ahead and open up on Sundays! Give up the being Christian act…because that just makes you look like a fraud in my eyes. Matter of fact how many charitable causes against gays and lesbians have you supported…maybe the board should oust you like they did the Mozilla guy.

    I am royally ticked off as a Christian because Greed and the Love of Money has just trumped Christian Conservatism. I will no longer support or give a dime of my money to a Chik Fil A meal.

    • Bwhaahaahahaahaha

      You gullible, deluded, hateful dolts. You were willing to plunk down money to buy disgusting looking fried chicken sandwiches because a CEO openly stated how much he despised the idea of civil liberties for gay people. If they throw money down to give your prejudices the forced of law, you pledged support to them. Now you are disappointed they were not hateful enough to lose business for your pet cause.

      If you are disappointed, oh well. I have no sympathy for you.

      There is nothing funnier than watching self-righteous fundamentalists devour their own.

  8. “Which means Chick-fil-A can focus on what matters most: the food and growth…”

    Really? This is what matters most in our society. Food and growth aka money?

    Love of money is _______?

    I think a key aspect is respect and toleration in a pluralistic society. Maybe this is a bit more important than money. And liberty. Including religious freedom and the glorious tension of liberty in a pluralistic society. And maybe ethics. How we live together with different beliefs, values, and assumptions in a pluralistic society. Maybe all these things are more important than food and growth (aka money).

    • “Love of money is _______?”

      The basis for conservative political agendas both social and fiscal versions.

      It was not long ago that the Bible thumpers were throwing their weight behind a presidential candidate who specifically said that the wealthy need to benefit at the expense of the rest of the population. To make matters worse, the guy said it was a duty of Christians to agree to this.

      Now you guys found something more important than keeping rich people rich. Attacking the civil liberties of others apparently is more important. LOL.

      I wonder how long will it take before “social conservatives” realize than nobody really takes them seriously unless they are delivering votes for rich people.

  9. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a business CEO/President having strong christian values. There is nothing wrong with this person sharing those values with those around them. What “IS” wrong is compelling someone to adopt those values.

    The difference so far with Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby is that Hobby Lobby was attempting to hold all employees to their religions standards. Dan Cathy only conveyed his christian beliefs and while condemning those of different beliefs, he never tried to implement those beliefs at the workplace.

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