I Toured The Chick-Fil-A Test Kitchen — Here's What You're Missing Out On

There are few fast food brands that evoke such a sense of devotion and esteem as Chick-fil-A. Starting as a small, humble chain of mall food court restaurants, its growth has gone from steady to exploding in the last two decades or so, all while the company has continued to keep things simple and do what works. The chain sat back and watched the chicken sandwich wars consume fast food joints in recent years, attempting to carve a permanent name where Chick-fil-A's has been cemented for over half a century. It is so distinctly itself, and it's undeniably good.

Chick-fil-A has gotten to where it is thanks to a dedicated team of loyal employees and a strategic, detail-oriented approach to growth that starts from the top down. The backbone of the Chick-fil-A menu and the entire restaurant experience is centered at the company's headquarters and test kitchen in Atlanta, Georgia. This is where all conception, development, testing, and more take place — essentially, if you see it or taste it at your local Chick-fil-A, it was vetted in the test kitchen.

Mashed recently got the chance to see how things work firsthand during a tour of the Chick-fil-A test kitchen. Employees gave us a breakdown of everything that goes on behind the scenes to bring the chain's iconic menu to life. And we're sharing everything we've learned so no dedicated Chick-fil-A fan has to miss out.

Everything on Chick-fil-A's menu goes through the test kitchen

Chick-fil-A has been officially open since 1967 — its predecessor Dwarf Grill dates back to 1946 — and has seen countless menu items come and go over nearly eight decades. Many of those items are still beloved today, but a lot of them only exist in our memories. Chick-fil-A pays homage to those items at its test kitchen with a wall-sized mural depicting a timeline of the company's menu. From the 1940s to today, the company shows exactly how it has evolved over the years as its customer base has grown and its kitchen staff has gotten more and more creative.

This display also goes to show just how proud Chick-fil-A is of its often-changing yet always pleasing menu offerings. That's because everything the chain offers to its customers goes through the test kitchen first, where it has to live up to rigorous standards and testing. The multi-department operation employs nearly 200 people to make sure everything you taste from Chick-fil-A is exactly what you expect, or better.

Workers and guests alike are greeted by a giant sauce wall

Every Chick-fil-A fan knows just how important the sauce is to the overall experience, giving your meal a spicy, sweet, tangy, or creamy kick. The chain understands this so well that it even makes its own sauce, which has become a fan favorite across the board. But regardless of whether you count Chick-fil-A sauce as your go-to, the chain offers eight different dipping sauces to match whatever flavor craving you're feeling. And you can't go wrong with any choice — as one Chick-fil-A chef put it, "if Chick-fil-A has taught me anything, it's if you like it, go for it."

Chick-fil-A celebrates our love of its signature sauces every day at its test kitchen. Immediately upon entering the building, employees and guests are greeted by a giant sauce photo wall. It features the company's logo on a photo backdrop with giant sauce props attached all around the sides. Visitors can take photos under the condiment rainbow or grab their favorite one off the wall for a sauce selfie.

There's a unique process to creating new menu items

If you have a hard time thinking of a Chick-fil-A menu item that you haven't loved, you're not alone. And that's because the chain makes a strategic effort to make sure that everything it develops in the test kitchen meets every single Chick-fil-A standard, the most important being that it's really fresh and really flavorful.

The company achieves this by following a particular protocol for bringing product ideas from the drawing board to the menu board. The innovation process has five parts: Understand, Imagine, Prototype, Validate, and Launch. As company executives told us at the test kitchen, it starts with fully grasping what the customers are loving and seeking at the moment, then brainstorming from all angles in the kitchen and beyond. After that, new ideas go through every possible iteration, from ingredients to cooking techniques and more, until a prototype is developed. This is then tried and tested in the corporate kitchen and among consumers both in blind taste tests and in test markets before Chick-fil-A decides whether or not to fully market and launch a new product.

Chick-fil-A is committed to using the freshest products

One thing you'll quickly notice on a walk through the Chick-fil-A test kitchen is the pride the company takes in its commitment to fresh ingredients. There's a reason people love the food so much. It all comes down to high quality chicken, eggs, produce, herbs, and more. While Chick-fil-A doesn't disclose exactly where it sources all of its menu items and ingredients, it does claim that much of its produce comes from the West Coast and that all of its chicken is whole and free of fillers, steroids, and hormones. Furthermore, the company maintains high standards, both from its suppliers and in its kitchens, to uphold its reputation for serving consistently fresh food.

The experts in the test kitchen are reminded of this every day when they pass by a huge wall of plants, sprouting a floor-to-ceiling assortment of fresh herbs. One employee told us that the chefs sometimes even grab some fresh herbs off the wall to use while working on something in the kitchen. While in the test kitchen, you'll also learn that Chick-fil-A is the largest purchaser of lemons in the U.S., that its waffle fries are sustainably supplied by Lamb Weston potato company, and that its coffee is special grade and supports a cause.

The test kitchen is packed with ingredients and seasonings

If you've ever found yourself experimenting in the kitchen, then there's a good chance you've found yourself emptying your spice cabinet trying out a pinch of this and a splash of that as you taste your way to the perfect flavor. Well, that's pretty much how it happens in the Chick-fil-A test kitchen as well. The culinary space is stocked with a pantry and fridges full of ingredients, plus shelves and shelves of every spice and condiment you can imagine. There is everything from giant cans of San Marzano tomatoes to jumbo tubs of stadium nacho cheese to Costco-sized containers of ground herbs.

There's no doubt the culinary team at Chick-fil-A has a fully stocked inventory of ingredients to let their imaginations run wild. This comes in handy for a chain that makes many of its ingredients from scratch from long-held company recipes.

Chick-fil-A makes its own equipment on site

Frequent Chick-fil-A visitors can attest to the consistency across the chain's menu. The sandwiches, nuggets, sides, and desserts will almost always look, feel, and taste the same no matter when or where you get it, or which kitchen makes it. It's yet another measure of quality control for Chick-fil-A. And it's possible because the company has an entire engineering department in its test kitchen that is dedicated to developing, maintaining, and updating the proprietary equipment Chick-fil-A uses to make and assemble all of its menu items. 

From its proprietary fryers, to its pressure cookers and ice cream machines, Chick-fil-A is hands-on in the process of making much of its menu from the ground up. Of course, this technology is strictly company business so we didn't get a close look at the inner workings of the equipment lab. But we can pretty much guarantee that every batch of waffle fries you get at Chick-fil-A will be uniformly cooked to perfection thanks to the in-house attention to quality and execution.

All menu items have to undergo a stress test

Once a brilliant new menu item has been developed in the Chick-fil-A test kitchen, it still has a long way to go before the public gets to see it or taste it. The test kitchen is also for — you guessed it — a whole lot of testing that each and every menu item must undergo to prove it is worthy of the Chick-fil-A menu. Flavor-wise, the company says it employs several rounds of taste testing when developing new items.

Once a recipe has been created, it has to survive the kitchen. Stress tests involve making hundreds of product samples under time constraints to see how the cooking process can be adapted to the flow of a Chick-fil-A restaurant. As one Chick-fil-A executive explained to Mashed, for every single item that's ever made it to the menu, "we really stressed it, we vetted it, and we feel like we have something special. We're going to see — how does it come to life in our restaurants? ... What does the customer say they want? What do operators and team members say?" That process of testing and feedback is what sets Chick-fil-A up for success from the start, and why its arguably hasn't had that many food flops coloring its history.

The Chick-fil-A test kitchen can replicate every single restaurant location

With thousands of Chick-fil-A restaurants operating around the country, you might be wondering how Chick-fil-A is able to ensure its menu items can be prepared successfully at every single location just by doing testing at its headquarters in Atlanta. While touring the test kitchen, we witnessed firsthand the secret to the chain's success. Chick-fil-A's industrial test kitchen is partly built from adjustable components that can be moved around to replicate the design and set up of every single type of kitchen layout that Chick-fil-A uses at its locations.

Whether it's a mall location, a drive-thru only, or a stand-alone restaurant with a dining room, Chick-fil-A can test all of its products in any type of setup to ensure they can be cooked to order safely and efficiently in any scenario. Rather than overwhelming kitchens with changes and reacting afterward, Chick-fil-A works to be proactive about any problems that may arise so that it's always operating smoothly — meaning that the long drive-thru line is always moving.

All the Chick-fil-A packaging is designed and refined in the test kitchen

We all judge a book by its cover sometimes, whether we notice it or not. This logic also tends to be true when it comes to fast food, with the packaging and presentation going a long way in determining our overall perception of the ready-made meal. It's marketing 101 and something Chick-fil-A fully understands, which is why all of its menu items have precisely designed and developed packaging.

It's a combination of art and science, really. Anything that is going to house Chick-fil-A's signature sandwiches and fries has to look good, it has to be convenient, and it has to keep the food hot. Not to mention, it has to evoke the satisfaction of great quality and nostalgic flavors customers have come to expect from the brand. Packaging development happens right next door to Chick-fil-A's test kitchen, so the two teams can work simultaneously to ensure that all of our senses are impacted by the signature look, feel, and taste of Chick-fil-A.

This is how the chain monitors customer feedback

If there's one thing that was abundantly clear throughout our visit to the Chick-fil-A test kitchen, it's that everything that is designed, developed, or implemented is done so with the customer in mind above all else. The company prides itself on being people-centered, both in the dining room and in the kitchen. With every single aspect of the restaurant and the food, "we [start] with the customer and we really [focus] on what does this specific customer, what does our customer want from Chick-fil-A," Menu and Packaging Director Leslie Neslage told Mashed.

And as such, Chick-fil-A relies on this community to help create a menu and an environment that keeps people coming back. While at the test kitchen, Mashed learned that Chick-fil-A depends heavily on customer feedback to add, improve, and update menu items. In test markets and during limited-time promotions, the chain makes it possible for customers to easily give their input. This is typically done by attaching stickers with QR codes to product packaging, which presents customers who order the item with a link that directs them to a survey.

Things in the test kitchen changed a bit during COVID-19

While the Chick-fil-A test kitchen is a multi-faceted, year-round operation, it faced impacts like all other businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several projects that were in the works, including the recently debuted cauliflower sandwich, were delayed or put on hold when the pandemic hit, and the company's focus changed. "We intentionally paused some things," Leslie Neslage told Mashed.

At the peak of COVID, it became an all-hands-on-deck effort to ramp up the company's drive-thru game. Like most fast food chains, this was the only chance to keep up sales in a new world of lockdowns and social distancing. While the Chick-fil-A test kitchen continued to have some employees on site, operations were limited and the priorities shifted. The company has since gone back to developing and introducing new menu items and continuing to create new reasons to bring customers back through the drive-thru or the open dining rooms.

There are dozens of projects going on at any given time

There's a reason you'll find new, seasonal, and limited-time menu items at Chick-fil-A every year. It's because the culinary team at the company's headquarters never stops working to make sure the menu is in perfect condition. What that looks like is a lot of chefs, culinary experts, packaging pros, engineers, and more constantly collaborating on new ideas.

We got a chance to see it firsthand on our tour of Chick-fil-A's test kitchen. "I mean, dozens, if not into the triple digits, of projects are running in this business," Chick-fil-A Lead Culinary Developer Stuart Tracy told Mashed. And even just in the kitchen, multiple recipes are constantly being tested. "I would say between us developers, there could be four to five dozen things in the works that are kind of all up in the air at the same time," said Tracy. From new beverage blends to salad creations, breakfast bites, side offerings, and more, you can rest assured there is always something delicious in the works.

Employees at the test kitchen get to eat a lot of Chick-fil-A

It's no secret that, whether you're in the kitchen or the corporate office, working in the food business often comes with one particular perk: Free or discounted food. That's certainly the case for the lucky employees at Chick-fil-A's headquarters and test kitchen. Not only were the staff kitchens stocked with drink stations and plenty of snacks, but it was clear that Chick-fil-A menu items were readily available on the premises. Not to mention, the kitchen staff also noted that items in testing and development are often up for grabs for employees to sample (and offer constructive feedback on).

Of course, working at corporate headquarters, and thus in Atlanta, means living near the birthplace of Chick-fil-A and a huge cluster of restaurant locations. So it was no surprise that many employees we spoke to at the test kitchen also admitted to eating a lot of Chick-fil-A themselves even when not in the office. It's also no surprise considering just how much love and loyalty so many Chick-fil-A test kitchen workers have for their job and the company they have "the pleasure" to work for.