Area Chick-fil-A customers on Monday remembered Chick-fil-A’s founder for his business model and personal values. S. Truett Cathy died early Monday morning at 93.
Emmy Dale, marketing director for the Chick-fil-A of Gainesville, said Cathy will be missed by “the entire Chick-fil-A family.”
“Truett Cathy was definitely a wonderful man, a man of value and a great businessman,” Dale said. “...Truett set the vision for the beginning of the business, and we run on his vision every single day. We will definitely miss him.”
According to Dale, Atlanta-based radio station 104.7 The Fish encouraged listeners to go through the Chick-fil-A drive-thru Monday and pay for the order of the customer behind them in Cathy’s memory.
“We are getting that repeatedly in the drive-thru...” Dale said. “I think that’s a beautiful picture of what he believed in — and that’s caring for our customers. It’s amazing to see our customers caring for other guests as well.”
Gainesville Chick-fil-A customer Jennifer Greenfield said she wanted to eat at Chick-fil-A Monday to honor Cathy.
“I love Chick-fil-A and I was sad to hear about his passing,” Greenfield said. “I had a lot of respect for him and his family, what they stood for, and that they stay closed on Sundays. That’s a whole day of revenue they’re losing in doing that.”
Under the religiously conservative founder, the chain gained prominence for its Bible Belt observance of Sunday. None of its hundreds of restaurants are open on that day, to allow employees a day of rest. Its executives often said the chain makes as much money in six days as its competitors do in seven.
Dale said she had “so much to say” about Cathy, but the most important thing was how he cared for the people around him.
“The most important thing about Truett is that he cared about the business and he cared about selling chicken, but he really cared about his customers and being part of their lives and part of the community that he served,” Dale said. “That’s part of his legacy that Chick-fil-A still wants to carry on.”
Cathy opened his first diner, the Dwarf Grill, in Hapeville, south of Atlanta, in 1946. In 1967, he founded and opened the first Chick-
fil-A Inc. restaurant. Today, the chain boasts more than 1,800 locations in 40 states and Washington D.C., according to the company’s website.
By early 2013, the company says on its website, annual sales topped $5 billion as the chain offered up a taste of the South that went beyond chicken to such offerings as sweet tea, biscuits and gravy.
Cathy’s religious views helped win him and his family a loyal following from conservative customers, but also invited protests when Cathy’s son defended the company’s donations to groups campaigning against gay marriage.
Cathy’s son, Dan, currently chairman and president of the chain, had told the Baptist Press in 2012 that the company was “guilty as charged” for backing “the biblical definition of a family.” Gay rights groups and others called for boycotts and kiss-ins at Cathy’s restaurants. The Jim Henson Co. pulled its Muppet toys from kids’ meals, while politicians in Boston and Chicago told the chain it is not welcome there. The controversy later subsided.
The family-owned company has said it has had 46 consecutive years of positive sales growth. Cathy’s $6 billion fortune put him on the yearly Forbes magazine list of the wealthiest Americans in the country. The company listed him on its website as its chairman emeritus after he left day-to-day operations to younger generations.
Cathy attributed his hardworking nature to growing up poor. Even as a little boy he made money by selling six bottles of Coca-Cola for a quarter.
“I’ve experienced poverty and plenty and there’s a lesson to be learned when you’re brought up in poverty,” he said in 2007. “I had to create some good work habits and attitude.”
Even well into his 80s, Cathy was actively involved in the chain’s operations.
“Why would I retire from something I enjoy doing?” Cathy said in a 2007 interview. “I can hardly wait to get here.” He set up a contract with his children that said they may sell the privately owned chain in the future, but the company must never go public.
An opportunity in 1961 led to the development of the restaurant chain’s trademark chicken sandwich when a company that cooked boneless, skinless chicken for airline meals wanted to sell him pieces that were too big for the airline customer’s needs. Cathy cooked them in a pressure cooker and served them in buttered buns.
The sandwich was sold at independent restaurants for a few years before he opened his first Chick-
fil-A restaurant at an Atlanta shopping mall in 1967.
“He often talked about how he never planned for Chick-fil-A to be the size that it is today. For Truett, it was so much more than building a national chain,” Chick-
fil-A Senior Vice President of Operations Tim Tassopoulos said Monday. “It was also a place where Truett could invest in people, giving them a first job, a place to learn about hard work and a place for many to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams.”
In 1984, he created the WinShape Foundation to help “shape winners” through youth support programs and scholarships. He also created a long-term program for foster children that has foster care homes in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Brazil.
His 2007 book “How Did You Do It, Truett?” outlined his strategy for success that included setting priorities, being courteous, cautiously expanding a business and not being burdened with debt.
“There’s really no secret for success,” he said then. “I hope it will open eyes for people. They don’t have to follow my recipe but this is what works for me.”