I went behind the scenes at Chick-fil-A to see how its famous chicken sandwich is made — and I learned the whole process is really a race against the clock

Hollis Johnson/Business InsiderBehind this no-frills sandwich is a top-secret recipe, a timing algorithm, and lots of precision.
  • Chick-fil-A has been serving up its original chicken sandwich since 1964, according to the restaurant’s website.
  • The chain recently said the sandwich was the fourth-best-selling item on the menu in 2018, behind waffle fries, soft drinks, and chicken nuggets.
  • From the secret blend of spices and seasonings to the unique pressure fryer and the precise placement of pickles, there’s a lot that goes into the making of this seemingly simple sandwich.
  • Chick-fil-A follows the “lean” process, which employs ever-evolving methods of reducing waste and creating the best customer experience possible to produce fresh food in a short time.
  • Since all fillets are breaded by hand daily and assembled to order, Chick-fil-A has specified every step of the process down to the minute across all locations.
  • I went behind the counter at the Chick-fil-A on Fulton Street in Manhattan to have a look at the busy kitchen, and I got the chance to see exactly how the chain’s No. 1 sandwich is made.


Truett Cathy founded Chick-fil-A on his secret recipe for success — the recipe for what’s now the chain’s original chicken sandwich.

Courtesy of Chick-fil-A

He modelled the cooking process on the way his mother would fry chicken at home: She would put a lid over the stove to create a sort of pressure cooker, allowing the chicken to cook more quickly and evenly.

Courtesy of Chick-fil-A

Cathy took this idea and brought it to Henny Penny, a food-equipment manufacturing company, and came up with a special pressure fryer that’s now used in all Chick-fil-A locations. I got to see how it works! But more on that later.

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Source: Henny Penny


I don’t ever remember having to wait more than five minutes for my food at Chick-fil-A. I admit that has raised some questions in my mind about freshness.

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But there’s a reason for that super-short wait time at the chain that wants us all to “Eat Mor Chikin”: It has the timing down to a science.

Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A uses the “lean” process, a way to reduce waste and increase value to guests, according to the company. Restaurants use a kanban system to keep timing on track — it triggers employees to make more food as it is consumed, like when empty bins like these get passed back to the prep station.

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On the more technical side, restaurants use an algorithm that keeps track of daily production and sales numbers. It predicts how much business the location will do the next day and uses that information to tell employees how many fillets should be breaded per bin. It’s designed to reduce the amount that goes to waste.

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But the process of building the no-frills sandwich starts way before the algorithm kicks in.

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Boxes of frozen chicken breasts arrive by truck once a day, six days a week. They go into the walk-in freezer — along with the chain’s top-selling waffle fries and other cuts of meat — and wait their turn to thaw in a separate refrigerator.

Rachel Askinasi/Business Insider

Source: Business Insider


Since there’s no heat added to help the chicken thaw, the process takes a full 24 hours. So you won’t be eating chicken that came out of the freezer that morning for dinner.

Rachel Askinasi/Business InsiderThe walk-in freezer at the Chick-fil-A on Fulton Street.

After thawing, the breasts are carefully inspected to make sure they all meet company standards. That means no imperfections like tears down the middle.

Rachel Askinasi/Business InsiderThis would be deemed an unusable chicken breast.

Then they’re brought into the kitchen, where the real fun begins.

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The first stop is the breading station. Inside the giant metal box are several bins with all the necessities for breading fillets …

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… including a set of instructions.

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The employee manning the station fillets each chicken breast by running their thumb up the seam. The team calls the smooth side of a chicken breast the “crown,” while the rough side — the side with the seam — is the “heel.”

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Sometimes subpar chicken pieces or breasts will make their way to the breading station. The breader catches them and set them aside as waste.

Rachel Askinasi/Business InsiderThe top bin is filled with breasts to be breaded. The bin on the bottom is for raw-meat waste.

After the pieces that make the cut are filleted, breaders hold onto the chicken by the tail — two fillets at a time — and dunk them in the milk-and-egg wash once.

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Then it’s time for the flour coating. Both fillets get laid in the coater bin and buried in the flour mixture until they’re no longer visible.

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Then — and this is a crucial part of the process, according to Chick-fil-A team members — the person breading needs to put all their weight into pressing down on the fillets. That means heels come off the ground and hands press down hard on the chicken.

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Fillets get flipped over, covered, and pressed down again for an even coating. Then they go into one of two bins for the original chicken and move on to the fryer.

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If you’ve ever worked with breading and flour, you know it can get clumpy after a few rounds of dunking. When this happens, the team member sifts the flour, removes any clumpy pieces, and replenishes the stock as needed.

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Coated, raw fillets get loaded onto a multitiered basket, ready for a quick dip in the pressure fryer.

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Naturally, the fillets aren’t the exact same thickness all around. To ensure an even cook, employees point the tail of the fillet inward, toward the center of the fryer.

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The coils that heat the peanut oil run around the walls of the fryer, so the edges are where the oil is hottest — that’s why the thickest part of the fillet is better off on the outskirts of the basket.

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The lid is closed, and a timer is set. It takes exactly four minutes to cook the chicken for this sandwich.

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Look at that perfectly golden fry!

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Once the chicken is cooked, the basket is lifted out of the pressure fryer and rested in the notches of this funelling contraption. The notches allow employees to quickly tip the basket over without dropping any chicken on the ground.

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They all get funneled into another bin and brought over to the assembling station, where they’re on the clock.

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Breaded, cooked fillets can sit unassembled in a bin for only 20 minutes. If the timer runs out, the fillets get pulled. This is where the algorithm is helpful — it tries to ensure there aren’t more fillets being made than there are being ordered.

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Fear not, waste haters. The cooked pieces of unassembled chicken that haven’t yet touched so much as a single leaf of lettuce can be repurposed.

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Once that 20 minutes is up, the heart of the sandwich gets put into a refrigerator, cooled, and then cut up and put into soup.

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But let’s get back to the chicken that does make it into the sandwiches.

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Assemblers watch the orders come in on a screen like this and prep the sandwiches. This is when the magic happens, folks.

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First things first: The buns need to be buttered. This small metal contraption holds liquid butter and rolls it right onto the bun.

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One swipe of each side across the roller leaves you with a perfectly buttered bun — unless it’s the first of the day, in which case you need to swipe once for the roller to pick up the butter, then again to get it on the bun.

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Then into the toaster they go!

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It’s important that the toaster is set to the right temperature, or you’ll end up with buns that are only half-toasted, or even burnt — those get thrown away.

Rachel Askinasi/Business InsiderAll these buns would be wasted.

Up next: pickles!

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The pickles go through a vetting process. Anything that looks like this, is torn at all, or is smaller than a dime doesn’t make the cut.

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Chick-fil-A’s policy is generally two pickles per sandwich. But a third can be added if the pickles are small.

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Pickle placement is also meticulous. Overlapping too much — or setting them off-center like this — is a no-go.

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The pickles have to be touching but not quite overlapping, and placed so they cover the maximum surface area. This placement is ideal.

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After the pickles have been carefully placed on the heel of the bun — yep, employees use “heel” and “crown” to describe the buns as well — it’s time for the chicken.

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There’s a “rule of three corners” at Chick-fil-A: The three corners of the fillet have to hit three points on the edge of the bun, like a triangle.

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Top it off with the crown of the bun, and the sandwich is complete. But wait! It still has to make it to the customer.

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This is where Chick-fil-A’s custom aluminium bags come in — and where I tried my hand at bagging the sandwiches.

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To be honest, this was the hardest part of the process for so many reasons. First of all, putting the sandwich in the bag is a lot tougher than it looks.

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Opening the bag is an art. Adam Hall, a team member at the Fulton Street location, told me to hold the packet open with my nondominant hand and insert the sandwich with my dominant hand. Sounds easy, but it’s not.

Rachel Askinasi/Business InsiderAdam made it look super easy, but getting the bag to stay open long enough to get the sandwich in there was a challenge.

The sandwich has to be pushed all the way to the bottom of the packet, but you have to be careful not to smush the bun. Of course, I smushed the bun.

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Then it needs to be folded. Adam drew a dotted line on one packet as an example. But again, it’s harder than it looks.

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Mine wasn’t as perfect as Adam’s, but he said it was all right for a first-timer. That sounds like a win to me!

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Once the sandwich is in the bag — folded immaculately, of course — it’s ready to go onto the chute, into a customer’s bag, and, ultimately, into their stomach.

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Assembled sandwiches on the chute are on the clock for five minutes. Anything that doesn’t get sold when that timer runs out is thrown away. Luckily for me, mine made it back to the office for lunch.

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