Chick-fil-A is making big changes to take on Shake Shack and Chipotle

Chick-fil-A is quietly reinventing itself, from the outside as well as within.

The fast-food chain, famous for its crispy chicken sandwiches and its founder’s staunch Christian faith, is embracing a new, more inclusive culture.

“We are not a political organisation. We are not a social change organisation. We are a restaurant,” David Farmer, Chick-fil-A’s vice president of menu strategy and development, said during a tour of the company’s Atlanta headquarters.

Alongside this, the company is updating those offices by tearing down walls to encourage collaboration among employees. And it has opened a new test kitchen and hired a high-end chef to spice up its offerings.

This double-barreled approach points to the company’s ambition to rank with fast-casual chains like Shake Shack and Chipotle, instead of more traditional fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King. It already has a cult following that helps it outshine most restaurant chains in terms of per-unit sales per unit.

Chick-fil-A says its system-wide sales topped $6 billion in 2015. That means that its 1,950 restaurants generated an average of $3.1 million in sales last year. By comparison, McDonald’s and Chipotle restaurants generate about $2.5 million in per-unit sales annually. Moreover, same-store sales growth (sales at stores open more than a year) in 2015 was in the enviable double-digits, Farmer says. Industry-wide, that metric was below 2% last year.

The 50-year old chain is primarily concentrated in the South, and it’s now expanding its presence in the Northeast, opening its first outlet in New York City last fall with its second Manhattan location on the way. The company now has locations in 42 states.

With that expansion, the company is trying to get away from the kind of lightning-rod discussions that could alienate potential customers.

‘To glorify God’

Of course, it is famous for having done exactly the opposite just a few years ago.

Dan Cathy, the son of the late Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy, set off a fury among gay rights supporters in 2012 when he told
the Baptist Press in 2012 that the company was “guilty as charged” for backing “the biblical definition of a family.” Following Cathy’s remarks, reports emerged detailing Chick-fil-A’s many charitable donations to anti-gay marriage organisations.

These days, Chick-fil-A has warned all of its franchisees against speaking out publicly or getting involved in anything that could blur the line between their private beliefs and their public roles as extensions of the Chick-fil-A brand.

In an election year, that message extends to politics, in part to keep the brand from being exploited by candidates. In fact, the company has turned down several candidates who have tried to use Chick-fil-A to bolster their campaigns.

“There are several candidates who would like to use us as a platform,” Farmer said.

“We are not engaging,” he adds. “Chick-fil-A is about food, and that’s it.”

The company still encourages its franchisees to get “entrenched” in their communities, which includes getting involved in local churches, Farmer says. Operators’ involvement in their communities — especially through their churches — is a critical part of what has helped Chick-fil-A attract such a passionate following over the years.
And the company’s corporate purpose still reflects its founder’s Christian faith: “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.”

But Chick-fil-A is now pushing a more inclusive message, and telling operators not to let their activities in the community alienate or exclude any particular faiths or religious organisations.

“We want Chick-fil-A to be for everyone. That’s your filter when deciding what to engage in,” Farmer says.

Changing the corporate culture

The company’s cultural reinvention has extended to its corporate offices in Atlanta.

The cavernous concrete buildings anchoring Chick-fil-A’s wooded 70-acre campus scream 1980s corporate architecture. But inside, many offices and cubicles have been abandoned in favour of the type of open meeting spaces that are prevalent in tech startups.

Chick-fil-A headquartersHayley PetersonA building on Chick-fil-A’s corporate campus in Atlanta.

Inside one of its main office buildings, the company is tearing down physical walls to create a more open, collaborative environment.

In fact, when most corporate employees are hired these days, they aren’t even given a desk.

They are asked if they would prefer a rolling bag or a backpack, instead — because according to Farmer, this isn’t a clock-in, clock-out desk job. It’s one where collaboration is valued above all else, and to encourage that, the company wants employees to be highly mobile.

Employees are encouraged to work out in the company gym during the day or take off for a run on one of the trails across campus. Employees can also work from home if they need to.

Chick-fil-A headquartersHayley PetersonChick-fil-A corporate employees take a break to chat.

All Chick-fil-A employees must wear nametags every day, no matter how long they have been employed. This is to encourage everyone to get to know one another.
Across the street from the main campus are a set of smaller buildings housing the newly-built innovation center.

It houses the test kitchen, the “food theatre” — where new menu items are taste-tested — the engineering center, and a model Chick-fil-A kitchen.

The innovation center is a sensory overload. Its bright, light, and modern design is a far cry from the concrete buildings on the main campus, and the strong smell of waffle fries wafts through the hallways.

Chick-fil-A headquartersHayley PetersonChick-fil-A’s innovation center.

That’s because right outside the lobby is the test kitchen, where Chick-fil-A’s six chefs — which include two food scientists and two registered dietitians — spend all day experimenting with the chain’s ingredients to come up with new menu items.
Most of the walls inside the innovation center are glass, so anyone walking down the hallways can see inside all the meeting rooms and kitchens.

Chick-fil-A started planning for its innovation center eight years ago. Executives visited the home offices of HP Labs, Apple, Pixar, General Mills, Heinz, and Stanford University to get inspiration.

“It helped us understand innovation better as a standard practice,” Farmer says.

Chick-fil-A has also started getting inspiration lately from fine dining restaurants.

Chick-fil-AHayley PetersonThe test kitchen inside Chick-fil-A’s innovation center.

The company has hired Ford Fry, an Atlanta restaurateur and a James Beard Award-nominated chef, as a consultant for menu development.
“He tells us what’s hot and what’s going to be relevant,” Farmer says.

Fry helped Chick-fil-A come up with its new
new kale-based “superfood side,” for example.

And the company has talked to Fry about brokering relationships with high-end chefs from other parts of the country, as well. That’s all about luring back customers who, while they will eat at McDonald’s and Wendy’s, more often tend to frequent restaurants like Shake Shack, Panera, and Chipotle.

“We still view ourselves as fast food because of our drive thrus, but we’re premium fast food,” Farmer says.

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