Samuel Truett Cathy isn't just another American success story. He's been taking America's restaurant scene by storm since World War II, transforming his Chick-fil-A business from a restaurant so small that he initially called it the Dwarf Grill into a US$1.6 billion empire.
S. Truett Cathy's Background
Cathy and his brother Ben opened the Dwarf Grill in Hapeville, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, in 1946 after Cathy's discharge from the U.S. Army. They built it near a Ford auto plant with the idea of bringing in its hungry employees. It worked. The brothers noticed that some of their customers were taking rolls and chicken meat and turning them into sandwiches, giving them the idea for the Chick-fil-A concept.
Ben Cathy and another brother then were killed in a plane crash. Truett Cathy continued to run the restaurant, which he renamed the Dwarf House and franchised it throughout the Atlanta area. The original restaurant is still in business, as the Dwarf House, although the Ford plant has since been closed and demolished.
Following the Exodus to the Suburbs
Cathy noted the growth of America's suburbs, particularly the indoor shopping malls that were springing up away from the centers of cities and small towns. He started the Chick-fil-A chain in 1967 in the Greenbriar Mall in southwestern Atlanta. It set the tone for the majority of his future restaurants. Some are stand-alone units, but most are located in malls.
Sharing His Entrepreneurial Style
Inspired as a young man by Napoleon Hill's book "Think and Grow Rich," Cathy has written four books of his own that focus on business motivation and personal inspiration. He co-authored one with Ken Blanchard that pretty much sums up his philosophy: "Generosity Factor: Discover the Joy of Giving Your Time, Talent, and Treasure."
Chick-fil-A franchises are closed on Sundays. Cathy opened his first restaurant on a Tuesday, and he found that by Sunday he was "just worn out." He noted that, like himself, many of his customers preferred to observe the Christian Sabbath and not eat out on Sunday. He's kept his restaurants closed on Sundays ever since, as much to honor the religious beliefs of his customer base, the evangelical Southern U.S., as his own. Truett put his day off to good use, teaching Sunday school for over 50 years.
Eat Mor Chikin
Cathy has used humor to boost his company's profile throughout his career. Some of his early TV commercials on Atlanta-area television demonstrated that he takes his product much more seriously than he takes himself. The company has produced TV commercials, print ads and highway billboards since 1994 with cows holding up signs that say, "Eat More Chicken," or rather, "EAT MOR CHIKIN," suggesting that cows might have trouble with spelling.
It was an effort to get people away from burger chains, thus increasing the fictional cows' self-preservation. Aside from an occasional complaint from the beef industry, no action has been taken against Chick-fil-A because the campaign doesn't demean any particular competing company.
Chick-fil-A in the News
Cathy has gotten a great deal of press in the millennium, not all of it good. He came out in opposition to same-sex marriage in 2012, and it turned out that his WinShape Foundation charity had funneled millions of dollars to political organizations that took a stand against gay rights.
A predictable brouhaha followed with some diners refusing to set foot in a Chick-fil-A while others lined up to eat there in support of Cathy's position. Cathy backed down, with Chick-fil-A announcing in a 2012 statement, "Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena."
Truett Cathy remained deeply involved in Chick-fil-A operations, running the company along with his son Dan Cathy. Cathy died at age 93 in September 2014. His chain continues to thrive and open new locations. The Chick-fil-A restaurant on the Auburn University campus set a record in June 2017 with $3 million in sales, earning an award. A cow attended the ceremony.