The best thing to happen to chicken
“Is this the Twilight Zone?” was my first thought as I stood with an gaze at the front of the cottage; it was a dimension I’d never entered before: A miniature town, complete with several trains traveling around a winding railroad, weaving in and out by churches, houses, farms and forests. Tiny cars, trucks, even wagons pulled by horses, sprinkled the imposing scene.
Inside the small white church there were people seated in their pews; an organ was playing a pious hymn.
Then the owners of this glorious landscape appeared and invited us to come inside; they greeted us hospitably. What we had seen, they said, was an example of “gardening railroading,” something that originated in Europe, and has become popular in the United States.
This railroad took nine years to build. It was one of the many unusual things Rachael, my wife, and I saw in Louisville, Ky., on our recent visit.
Something that caught my eye was the railroad station; a haunting replica of the one I’d seen back in Hapeville. It was that mysterious “something” that was nudging me to recall a bit of history that took root in 1946 near that station a few blocks away and across the railroad tracks.
This is how the story of S. Truett Cathy.
World War II was over; a soldier returned home to sift out memories and implement new visions. For weeks, even months, he’d been thinking about it all: home, a job, a future in the land of liberty. He had an idea, and the reality he would discover was sweeter than his fondest dream.
Details are not important, but the concept which lodged in his mind was vivid enough to motivate him; it required decisive action.
Truett Cathy was what you might call a born salesman, a man with the gift of persuasion, something he’d used from the time he was eight years old, living in West End during the days of the Great Depression. He’d buy a six-pack of cokes for a quarter and sell them for 5 cents each. In his spare time, he’d sell newspapers.
He talked to his brother Ben Cathy about being a partner in a new venture?
Cathy’s persuasion succeeded, as he expected. Ben came along and with him, loads of energy. Little did they imagine in their wildest dreams that one day they would make one of the most spectacular invasions of the highly competitive fastfood business and be running one of the largest and most successful restaurant chains in America.
Truett sold his car, and the brothers pooled their resources, borrowed a few thousand dollars, and with less than $11,000 they opened a restaurant in a small house near the railroad tracks, so small, Truett called it the Dwarf Grill.
Day by day, working long hours, he smiled and greeted neighborhood children, families and workers from the ford Assembly plant across the tracks. The peopled streets, the passing trains and customers coming in and out seemed to Cathy the architecture of dreams. He recalled the past.
After his family moved to Atlanta from Eatonton, his mother ran a boarding house. Truett remembered the hard times when making a living wasn’t a piece of cake. His mother worked like a slave. Each day contained long, comfortless hours, cooking food and serving a house full of boarders. Truett had to help, and there he learned the value of hard work. Time passed. Then tragedy struck. In 1949, his brother, Ben, and another brother, Horace, were killed in a plane crash. Broken hearted, but undaunted, Cathy kept the vision, working six days a week, nearly 24 hours a day. Business flourished, so he opened a second Dwarf House in Forest Park. Fortune seemed to be shinning on him.
Again trouble called. A phone call in the middle of the night awakened him with the news that his restaurant in Forest Park was on fire.
Before he could reach the scene, the roof was caving in. There wasn’t much left.
Once more, his courage was tested. He had to go deeply in debt to rebuild. Rebuild he did. Misfortune had made him stronger.
His obsession with finding better ways to cook chicken led him to an amazing discovery — a breakthrough creation known as a boneless breast of chicken served on a buttered bun. It became a sensation.
Feeling a new wave of intuition, he became adventurous, and opened a prototype Chickfil-A at Greenbriar Mall in Atlanta. It wasn’t long before Cathy had 333 units in 31 states, not franchises, but joint ventures with local investors as operators.
Presiding at the $7.8 million corporate Headquarters in South Fulton County near I-85, Cathy runs his enterprise like an army general.
Not long ago, I visited his headquarters, and I was treated like a celebrity. Cathy gave me a signed copy of his autobiography. As I left by way of the charming spiral staircase which adorns the open atrium, I sensed his warm spirit of genuine love and friendship.
Cathy practices benevolence in many ways. He sponsors college scholarships for employees and has given millions to churches and colleges.
Chick-fil-A was the first corporate sponsor of the Gospel Music Association’s Music Week and Dove Awards and often sponsors gospel-singing concerts.
The fast-food champion teaches a Sunday School class at Jonesboro First Baptist Church. He had made an unusual distinction for his restaurants: He demands that they all be closed on Sunday, The Lord’s Day.
At Berry College in Rome, Cathy established the WinShape Centre to help young people develop leadership. He describes the goal in these words: “Shaping individuals to be winners.”
If success is his major goal, he has attained it. No Chickfil-A restaurant has ever been closed. None ever had to.
Now the world’s fourth largest chicken chain, with 845 units in 35 states, Chick-filA has found its way into the hearts of millions.
In his book, “It’s Easier to Succeed than to Fail,” Cathy said, “Ideas come from God. They are pleasant and exciting, and won’t keep. They have to be acted upon.”
Some call it luck from the start; Cathy would call it providence. His success is a tribute to the triumph of God-directed ideas and ideals.