How Chick-fil-A Levels Up and Rules the Chain Restaurant Galaxy

Chick-fil-A is more than just the fast-food chicken restaurant some on the left love to hate. It’s more than just the target of misguided and misinformed attacks from the San Antonio city council and other intolerant folks.

It’s also more than that restaurant with the drive-thru line that leaks out onto nearby streets, yet somehow magically moves briskly despite it being three car lines across and dozens deep and run by a bunch of kids. Chick-fil-A is a fast-food juggernaut and a corporation the genius of which should not be overlooked.

Currently, despite having far fewer stores than McDonald’s and KFC, Chick-fil-A is building a more loyal fan base and a much more positive reputation. That’s not just good PR, it’s earned. According to franchise expert John Hamburger — yes, that’s his actual name — Chick-fil-A is growing when many national franchise brands are in danger of dying off. The stores it does have are mega-successes and generate triple the revenue of KFC. In fact, Chick-fil-As earn more per store than McDonald's, Starbucks and Subway — combined. Even though Chick-fil-A restaurants have one fewer day every week to sell chicken because they're closed every Sunday.

It’s also a study in strong, innovative management and nearly any business can learn from Chick-fil-A’s success.

How so?

1. They’re fanatics — about service

Chick-fil-A is very selective with its franchisees. Only about 70 to 80 out of every 20,000 who apply for a Chick-fil-A franchise gets accepted by Chick-fil-A’s corporate office. Additionally, Chick-fil-A franchisees are prohibited from owning more than one Chick-fil-A, which is unusual in the franchise industry. Many McDonald’s owners own hundreds of stores. Once you pass muster, though, a Chick-fil-A franchise fee is an affordable $10,000. McDonald’s cost $45,000.

Why is Chick-fil-A so selective? They want be sure that their franchises all reflect the same quality and qualities nationwide. That means a commitment to great food and great service. Chick-fil-A staff are the most polite in the fast food world. If you’ve visited a Chick-fil-A anywhere, you know what that means. You hear staff say “please” and “thank you” because they are trained to be polite. The corporation insists on it. So no matter where you visit a Chick-fil-A, you can count on being treated well. No exceptions.

The other thing such a selective approach to franchisees achieves is it keeps franchises close to their communities and hometown values. The franchise owners tend to live close to their stores. They employ local kids. They don’t make those kids work on Sundays. Keeping owners close to communities, Chick-fil-A believes, will keep the service quality high. And so far, their instincts are proving right.

I spotted this on LinkedIn a few weeks ago. It's a prime example of the service culture that permeates Chick-fil-A.

CFA Albany Chick-fil-A computer glitch means free food for customers.

2. They continuously improve based on what they see and hear

A few years back, they tore down one of the Chick-fil-A restaurants near me. My family and I were distraught. This was our favorite Chick-fil-A. And the destruction made no sense. That restaurant was on a high-profile and high-traffic corner. It was always packed. Surely it was making more than enough money to survive.

It turned out they tore one Chick-fil-A down to re-imagine the whole idea of the drive-thru and rebuild. They tore down a one-lane, inefficient restaurant that tended to block traffic and replaced it with the three-lane, bridged structures that are becoming typical of Chick-fil-A’s drive-thrus. Rather than sticking to a model that was safe but slow, they invented a whole new way to do drive-thru — and increased sales exponentially while dramatically improving the customer experience.

3. They see the future and stay grounded in the present

A few years back, Chick-fil-A recognized millennials were starting to have kids. With a new generation of parents came new expectations for fast dining. Chick-fil-As not only introduced more healthy options, while keeping their core product lines going strong. They also introduced the fast-food valet. Yes, this is a real thing and it speaks to Chick-fil-A’s vision.

Now, parents can pull into the drive-thru to order their meal, then come inside to their prepared table. With their order already in, service is a snap, and kids spend less time in the restaurant — meaning parents can spend less time wrangling their impatient kids inside the restaurant.

It’s the first time a major restaurant brand has offered a service like this.

In a story published on the Chick-fil-A website, one North Carolina mom wrote, “Our local Chick-fil-A does Mom’s Valet and they know us by name now!”

Chick-fil-A has always been innovative. They practically invented the chicken sandwich from spare parts. They all but invented the modern food court by building some of the first fast-food joints inside existing shopping malls. But the Mom’s Valet is next-level fast-food innovation and service. Chick-fil-A is probably the only fast food chain that can make any customer feel like they’re respected, wanted and even special. As the world gets less personal, Chick-fil-A cuts against the grain — and wins.

Add to that, Chick-fil-A’s crazy efficient drive-thru traffic handling, their great corporate citizenship in crises, their happy army of connected order clerks — and the genius of its delicious chicken recipes and sauce — and it’s clear Chick-fil-A is a restaurant you’ll never find in a creative rut. You will find them on the busiest corner in town, full of happy people who’ve made cows happy by eating more chicken.