Chick-fil-A had a banner year, growing to more than 1,700 units and generating systemwide sales in excess of $4.6 billion. With 76 years of history behind the brand known for its chicken sandwiches, the future is looking bright. President and chief operating officer Dan Cathy is leading the family-owned company through its second generation and into the third with a focus on service, customer connections and team member development.

Cathy, who previously won a Golden Chain Award in 2005, discussed the restaurant business with Cheryl Bachelder, chief executive of AFC Enterprises Inc., parent company of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, whom he called a “partner in poultry.” An excerpt from their conversation follows:

Cheryl Bachelder: One of the hallmarks of going to Chick-fil-A is that you do feel genuinely welcome when you visit, and I would love to hear you talk about how you accomplish that.

Dan Cathy: Well, thank you, Cheryl, and I really think there are many ways we can approach this, especially with the readers of this publication and the folks that will be there that night [at MUFSO], and that is to encourage folks to remember that we are in the restaurant business. We’re not a financial institution or in retailing, and the heart of our whole industry is based on this issue of gracious hospitality. … The term restaurant itself means a place of restoration, and … I believe it’s about 70 percent restoration of people’s emotional state and about 30 percent caloric restoration. 

CB: I love that thought, Dan. I’ve also heard you talk about “second-mile service,” and I’m curious how you explain that to teenagers and give them an approach that they would understand when they come in contact with the guest.

DC: Well, I get a lot of practice Monday through Saturday, but I also get a lot of practice on Sunday because I teach 11th and 12th grade young men in a Sunday school class, and they tutor me on special handshakes and new apps for my cell phone so I can maintain the cool factor. … Our corporate purpose at Chick-fil-A, I’ll just start there, is to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A. … The term second-mile service is a biblical term. … We put it under a microscope and ask ourselves, “What do our customers expect in the first mile?” … They expect a clean parking lot, soap in the dispenser. They expect two pickles on a Chick-fil-A sandwich. … That is the first mile, the first 5,280 feet, and we’ve got to have systems and processes that ensure the reliable execution on that first mile.

But if we get the first mile right, what would happen if we really started to do the things that people didn’t expect? And quite honestly, we’ve been studying our brethren in full-service dining who specialize in treating people with honor, dignity and respect, and we began to put some of those principles and practices in our restaurants at a $7 price point. We put fresh flowers on all of our tables. We offer fresh ground pepper. And then we invested in second-mile service from a vocabulary standpoint. “May I refresh your beverage?” “I’ll be assisting you to your table today,” — unexpected words and phrases that are a way of kind of saluting these customers and saying that we care about you, personally.

CB: I know you work diligently in choosing leaders for your restaurants. … Can you talk a little bit about what you look for in a leader that can make this second-mile service occur?

DC: That final selection is made on what we call the three Cs. Their confidence, and that relates to their overall business acumen — and Cheryl, as you well know, this world is becoming more and more complex, so having a strong educational background and a good business acumen is something that is important to us. Second is their chemistry, and that’s their personality. … We look for a strong ability to connect meaningfully with both the team members and the customers. It’s confidence, it’s chemistry, and thirdly it’s their character.

CB: Very thoughtful; I love your three Cs. ... How do you stay close to your leaders and guests at the front line? I’ve heard a rumor that you even camp out with some of your guests. Is that true?

DC: It doesn’t sound very nice, but I actually sleep with a lot of our customers. No, two weeks ago, I celebrated my 40th anniversary with my wife, and I want to keep that intact.

As you may know, before every opening we make the pledge that the first 100 customers that come in the door … can eat Chick-fil-A for free for a year. … People do come the day before with tents and sleeping bags and sofas and Nintendos, and it’s Moms’ night out. You wouldn’t believe the things in our parking lot, and it’s just a big street party. It’s kind of hard for me to sleep in a warm bed and take a hot shower when we’ve got customers in the parking lot. So I just get a tent and sleeping bag, and enjoy just camping out there with them. It keeps you really connected to people who have an incredibly raving-fan zealousness about this business.

CB: That’s really fun, and a good picture in my mind to imagine you in your tent. What are you optimistic about as you look at our business and our opportunities?

DC: Our industry is being wonderfully responsive to all the technological changes that we see going on. The new mobility of technology today is dramatically shifting, and all of us are making changes in our point-of-sale systems, the way we’re dealing with transactions and drive-thrus. … I see us responding to shifts in not only populations and demographics, but urban living and the vertical dimension of cities. … So I see this industry being very agile, very entrepreneurial as a whole, and the more entrepreneurship we have at the restaurant level, the better we’re going to serve the shifts and changes in society and culture. I’m very optimistic about our industry.

CB: I think that is a wonderful closing thought.

DC: Remember, eat more chicken!

CB: That’s right. We can agree on that! 

Cheryl Bachelder has been chief executive of AFC Enterprises Inc., which is parent to the Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen brand, since 2007. Before that, she served as president and chief concept officer at KFC. She won a Golden Chain Award in 2012.