Religion & Liberty Online

Chick-fil-A’s fast-food witness: Lessons on ‘Christian business’

Over the past decade, Chick-fil-A has rapidly risen as a leading contender in the fast-food wars, with soaring sales, ever-increasing market share, and a strong reputation for hospitality and customer satisfaction. In the last year alone, revenue rose by 16.7% to $10.5 billion, making Chick-fil-A the third largest restaurant chain in the United States.

Given the company’s well-known Christian bent, such success has made it a primary exhibit among those in the faith-work movement—a sterling symbol of what a successful “Christian business” can or should look like in an age of “woke capitalism.”

But why? What is it about Chick-fil-A’s distinct culture that sets it apart from other companies? What is it about their specific vision of Christian business and vocation that we might apply to our own economic activities—whether as workers, creators, or consumers?

Most of the public admiration seems to be largely stuck at the surface, relishing in the company’s countercultural support of “family values” or the fact that its restaurants are closed on Sundays and tend to play Christian music in their dining areas. Others point to its philanthropic work, which focuses on battling child hunger, caring for foster families, and empowering employees to attend college.

These are key features of Chick-fil-A’s character and public witness, but its bigger differentiator is found in something a bit more mundane: a simple focus on serving neighbors and doing it well.

Indeed, while many “Christian businesses” seek to justify their existences by adding Bible verses on boxes or touting extra “social responsibility” flair (“We send X% of our profits to Ministry Y”), Chick-fil-A finds its primary purpose in its primary offering—delicious chicken sandwiches served with top-notch, personable service. In turn, they remind us that hospitality and creative service are core aspects Christian work and business, regardless of product or industry. Whether with or without tailored “pro-Christian” marketing gimmicks, God is glorified in the simple selling of simple fast food for a simple, straightforward profit.

In recent profile of the company for Business Insider, Kate Taylor offers a closer glimpse into how this core focus has served as an anchor through good times and bad.

Founder Truett Cathy’s faith had always played a role in the way he ran his business (which began in 1964), but it wasn’t until its toughest year in business (1982) that the company rallied around a more concrete vision of how their faith applied to daily operations.

Huddled at a leadership retreat, nine of the company’s top executives weighed various options for overcoming a range of budgetary issues and threats from competitors. Yet, as Taylor explains, the strength of the resulting strategy flowed from somewhere unexpected:

Instead of trying to figure out the company’s 1983 financial plan, Chick-fil-A heir apparent Dan Cathy posed a bigger question. “Why are we here?”

In response, they all bowed their heads in prayer.

“I vividly remember we paused, we had a word of prayer, and said, ‘OK, let’s tackle it,'” [CMO Steve] Robinson said. By the end of the day, the nine men had created Chick-fil-A’s purpose statement:

“To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.”

From then on, this simple focus on “faithful stewardship” would begin to inform all else, fueling a new business model that would seek to better empower operators and employees while orienting their attentions and activities around their communities.

In the early 2000s, that model would mature more fully into the range of innovative hospitality practices we see today (e.g. saying “my pleasure” instead of “you’re welcome,” Chick-fil-A’s unique “ownership” model of franchising, etc.). In turn, the chain would become just as famous for its customer service as it is for its actual products.

As Taylor explains:

Chick-fil-A tops rankings of the most polite chains in fast food and was named the most beloved fast-food chain in the American Customer Satisfaction Index’s annual survey for the past four years.

Industry-high customer satisfaction boosts Chick-fil-A’s average unit volume, with the average Chick-fil-A location making quadruple what the average KFC would make.
Robinson said Cathy’s understanding of the Bible and “insight of the Holy Spirit” led to Chick-fil-A being built with a central mission to serve as a fundamentally welcoming place, with friendly employees and spotless locations. But it was Dan Cathy who took these lofty ideas and created concrete practices.

“Dan’s the one that came up with the idea to build on the principle going the second mile from Matthew 5:41,” Robinson said, citing the Bible verse that instructs “Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.”

From an industry perspective, the bigger, clearer, stronger witness of Chick-fil-A is found here: an excellence and intentionality in innovating the restaurant experience and serving human needs.

“People like to write about the Sunday closings and the LGBT matters, but the secret to this company’s success is a top-notch management team, a willingness to invest in the future, and a store-management structure that brings the operator closer to the customer and provides direct incentives for store performance,” says John Hamburger, president of the trade publication Franchise Times. “It is absolutely the best system I have ever seen in the restaurant industry.”

But while lessons learned may seem limited to those in the “service industry,” Chick-fil-A’s basic orientation aligns rather easily with a more basic Christian theology of work. As Lester DeKoster puts it, work is more simply service to others, and thus to God.

“Through work that serves others, we also serve God, and he in exchange weaves the work of others into a culture that makes our work easier and more rewarding,” writes DeKoster in Work: The Meaning of Your Life. “…As seed multiplies into a harvest under the wings of the Holy Spirit, so work multiplies into a civilization under the intricate hand of the same Spirit.”

Human service and neighbor love aren’t just select “values” for select companies—they are the driving purpose of our work.

That doesn’t mean it’s wrong or misguided to build “Christian businesses” with more distinct Christian “flair”—whether it be Bible verses on product labels, profits sent to Christian causes, etc. It simply means that our starting point ought to begin with something else. In doing so, we will bring our own distinction, namely, a love and service not of our own design.

As we seek to build successful enterprises that bear witness to the light, Chick-fil-A’s story is a helpful reminder that creative service is the basic source from which all else ought to flow.

Image: Chick-fil-A in Fairlawn, Ohio (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.