One of America’s great entrepreneurs and philanthropists died today. Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A passed away, “peacefully at home, surrounded by loved ones.” He was 93 years old.
I love reading the stories of the founding of great companies, with so many starting in garages or in the most humble of places. Cathy’s success story started with surplus chicken breasts and a “Henny Penny:”
It wasn’t until the early 1960s that Truett Cathy began work on a fried-chicken sandwich, after the owners of a local poultry purveyor came to him with surplus boneless breast pieces.
Mr. Cathy, whose mother had fried chicken in a skillet with the lid on to keep it moist, began using a recently invented commercial pressure cooker, the Henny Penny, that allowed him to fry a boneless, skinless chicken breast in just four minutes.
After tinkering with his seasoning mix, Mr. Cathy put the result on a buttered bun, added pickle slices “to give the sandwich character,” and, at the suggestion of his lawyer, came up with the name Chick-fil-A — the final “A” a measure, he said, of the sandwich’s quality.
Cathy mixed a good chicken sandwich with foresight, placing his stores in shopping malls that were then popping up all over America. This was the era before the food court, when shoppers often had to leave the mall or walk into a sit-down restaurant to eat while they shopped. Chick-fil-A gave them a fast, delicious option. And the rest was history.
I can remember eating in Chick-fil-A’s since early elementary school. There was a store in Fayette Mall in Lexington, Ky. (the mall of choice for families from nearby Georgetown), and we always looked forward to the “Chick fil-A” break in grueling shopping days. (Well, I thought they were grueling. Every minute in a mall is grueling to me.) After hours of waiting for my mother and sister semi-patiently in J.C. Penny or Sears, few things tasted better than a chicken sandwich and waffle fries.
While I liked Chick-fil-A for the chicken, I came to love it for its values. Years before the 2012 gay-marriage controversy that launched competing boycotts/buycotts, Chick-fil-A was known for treating its customers with an unusual amount of respect, and for empowering Cathy’s large-scale giving, with millions going to support the most vulnerable members of society. Its corporate purpose stands out as a clear marker of the source of the company’s convictions: “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.”
Cathy began in poverty and became a billionaire, but unlike other entrepreneurs of his stature, he passed up opportunities to make billions more by taking his fast-growing company public:
Doing so, he said in a 1998 interview, would mean giving up family control of matters such as contributions to charity and remaining closed on Sundays.
“As a public company, I’m sure somebody would object to our generosity,” he said.
In 2012, it turns out that “somebody” did object even though Chick-fil-A remained privately-held, with gay-rights groups calling for boycotts after Cathy’s son, Dan, declared that his family supported the “biblical definition of the family unit.” But the boycotts were swamped by a wave of “buycotts” that caused mulitiple Chick-fil-A’s to literally run out of chicken. My wife chronicled our own local buycott, where police (drinking from Chick-fil-A) cups directed the overwhelming traffic, local politicians showed up on force, and customers responded to hate with defiance and good cheer. When the radical Left took on Chick-fil-A, it took on not just any company, but one that millions of Americans had grown to love. The boycotts failed, and Chick-fil-A continued to prosper.
Christians frequently speak of ways to integrate faith and work, and in Cathy we had a role model – a man who treated others with dignity and respect, loved and served the “least of these,” and held firm to his convictions regardless of prevailing cultural winds.
God bless you, Truett Cathy. You are no doubt hearing the very words we all wish one day to hear: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”