An explanation for Chick-fil-A's success during the pandemic

As fast-food operations go, it's hard to beat Chick-fil-A. McDonald's and Starbucks might have Chick-fil-A beat in terms of sheer size – they earn more in total sales and have more than 13,000 locations each, compared to just 2,500 Chick-fil-A restaurants – but the chicken chain is climbing the ranks quickly. Chick-fil-A ranked third on this year's QSR list of top 50 fast-food chains, moving up two spots since 2019. Last year, Chick-fil-A moved up two spots from its 2018 position (via Forbes).

If you study that QSR top-50 chart, you'll see nobody makes more money per restaurant than Chick-fil-A, even though every location is closed on Sundays. Chick-fil-A also scored highest among limited-service restaurants in the latest report from the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which was based on surveys taken during the COVID-19 pandemic (via Atlanta Business Chronicle).

So we know that Chick-fil-A is keeping up its high customer-service standards during the pandemic, but to be honest we don't know how strong business has been in 2020. We know a lot about the fortunes of McDonald's and Starbucks during this pandemic year because those two chains are publicly traded companies that provide detailed information to investors. Thanks to these investor reports, we know McDonald's saw sales growth in the U.S. during the third quarter of 2020 (July-September), while sales at Starbucks locations were down during the same period. Chick-fil-A is privately owned and is not required to produce these reports.

Chick-fil-A customers don't mind long drive-thru times

While we may not know how financially successful Chick-fil-A has been during the pandemic, we see promising signs. QSR reports that a lot of good things have been happening at Chick-fil-A this year. The magazine says customer loyalty is benefiting Chick-fil-A during the pandemic. Indoor seating may be closed, but the drive-thrus are full. Chick-fil-A added family meal bundles to the menu, emphasized its make-it-yourself meal kits, and produced "Nightly Nuggets" cooking videos that taught recipes based on the chain's menu items.

You might think that having the longest drive-thru wait time among all fast-food chains surveyed would be a strike against Chick-fil-A during the pandemic. But customers don't seem to mind, as Chick-fil-A continues to get high scores in customer-service surveys (via The Atlanta Journal-Constitution). The article in the Atlanta newspaper even said wait times might be as long as they are at Chick-fil-A because so many people want that popular Chick-fil-A food. The staff at Chick-fil-A make the time pass more pleasantly by walking up to cars to complete the transactions and have friendly conversations.

In other words, customer service is a higher priority than speed at Chick-fil-A, and the customers appreciate it. As the head of the market-research firm that conducted the study on drive-thru times put it, "It pays off because Chick-fil-A has a cult-like following." So, we have every reason to believe Chick-fil-A will make it through the pandemic just fine.