The untold truth of Chick-fil-A

If Chick-fil-A was a band, they would be that hip, trendy band most people love, but that still has a few haters. But even the people who burned Beatles records had to admit they had a good thing going. That's basically Chick-fil-A. The Southern-based quick-serve restaurant known for charity, controversy, and really good chicken is rapidly expanding throughout the US. Generally speaking, it's hard to be "controversial" and sell things to the masses, but here's Chick-fil-A, just prancing around to the beat of their own drum and still selling lots of chicken — so much so that they are poised to be the third largest fast food restaurant based on gross sales by 2020 — and they're not even open every day of the week!

There's a lot out there about one of America's favorite chicken quick stops, and you might fashion yourself as a Chick-fil-A expert, but you don't know the whole story — until now.

Their top menu item might surprise you

Can you guess what the top selling item is at Chick-fil-A? Wrong. It's the Waffle Fries. But think about this, what is offered with every combo meal?  Exactly… Sure, you can substitute that kale thing (which is actually pretty good) or something else, but let's be real; the fries are really amazing. But which main menu item sells the best?  

It shouldn't come as too much of a shock, but the most popular chicken item at Chick-fil-A is the Original Chicken Sandwich. When you think about it, the reasons are aplenty. It's a simple sandwich to dress up with sauces to award you the option to eat the same thing many different ways. Sure the nuggets are great, but when it comes to old reliable, nothing beats the Original Chicken Sandwich.  

Here's how they really do it

So what's the secret to Chick-fil-A? How do they actually make the chicken taste so good? Well, there are a couple things going on, but let's focus on the actual cooking method — often overlooked but perhaps the real trick to how Chick-fil-A gets it done. 

As Dan Cathy, CFA president (and son of the founder, Truett Cathy) explained to the TV show Fast Food Mania, the key to the chicken is the speed. The Dwarf Grill (the original CFA) served workers on their break from the nearby Ford plant, and they didn't have a lot of time to wait around for chicken to fry up for 12-15 minutes. Truett developed a trick — pressure cooking the chicken will get everyone in and out quickly, and it takes about as long as it does to freshly cook the typical fast food fare. It takes about four minutes to cook up a Chick-fil-A sandwich, and that's the same method they still use today.

There's a Chick-fil-A hamburger

Don't tell the cows, but you can order a hamburger at a few Chick-fil-A's. How can they stoop to such dirty marketing deeds? Well, technically it's not a Chick-fil-A. But it kinda is.

Truett Cathy opened his first Dwarf House in 1946, complete with a tiny little door. The Hapeville, Georgia location still exists today with a Chick-fil-A appendage on the original restaurant —one of 11 locations in the Atlanta area. And yes, the Dwarf House was just another of hundreds of quick-service diners in the south that also had a full-service menu. The traditional diner fare included… Gasp! hamburgers (and it still does). In addition to a tasty burger, one can get a patty melt, the southern staple hot brown, or special side dishes like fried okra and the now-retired cole slaw.

There's a Fish-fil-A, too

Are you a real big Chick-fil-A fan? Have you eaten your way through the menu twice? You probably know of secret menus, and of course there are Chick-fil-A hacks that can really jazz up the usual order, but there's something that pops onto the menu only once a year — and not every place has it. It's fish. Each year during Lent, certain locations will serve a fish sandwich — two or three pieces of cod served on a bun with lettuce, tomato, and a slice of cheese. So, the big question is, how does it taste? Look, if you're trying to adhere to Lenten rules and you stumble upon a Chick-fil-A it'll work in a pinch. If you're trying to find a nice piece of cod, well, it's Chick-fil-A, not Cod-fil-A. It basically tastes like a typical frozen piece of fish dropped in some hot oil. But if you're a completionist and just need to eat the entire menu, look for the sandwich in February and March.

Chick-fil-A will never go public

The restaurant business is by default dicey — you're at the whim of tastes and trends. One of the hottest fast food restaurant is Chick-fil-A, with revenues in the billions annually. That's why investors consistently crave some CFA stock. It ain't gonna happen.

Founder Truett Cathy died in 2014. He started what became Chick-fil-A in 1946, and just like the ads say, he invented the chicken sandwich, — at least at the fast food level. Before he passed away, he created a contract that stipulated the company remain private. His heirs can sell the chain, but it must remain private. Why subjugate his kin from the potential billions in windfall? Simply because Cathy knew that publicly, Chick-fil-A could not be as charitable as it is privately. The deeply religious man believed in charity as much as the time-tested policy of closing on Sunday. He also had a problem with taking orders from outsiders, once saying, "I'd be resentful if shareholders who don't know the business tried to tell me what to do."

Others have guessed that his intentions to stay private stemmed from a desire to remain ultra conservative, though that hasn't been confirmed. While it's hard to say whether or not Cathy's stipulations are binding, his heirs have honored his wishes so far. 

The franchisees don't make a lot of coin

No stand-alone chain restaurant rakes it in like Chick-fil-A. At just under $3.2 million gross revenue per store in 2012, the average Chick-fil-A out-grosses even the mighty McDonald's. So owning a store as a franchise is a highly-sought commodity. But don't expect the Rolexes that accompany the high life.

The franchise fee for Chick-Fil-A is a miniscule $10,000. But with everything in life, there's a balance — they pick the spot and own the land where the restaurant goes. The cooking equipment is rented for a 15 percent pre-tax sales fee, and a whopping 50 percent of gross profit heads to the home office in Atlanta. They also demand that owners not just be a name situated below the drive thru window. If you own a Chick-fil-A ,they want you to be hands-on. But there is an upside to the decreased profit. The overwhelming majority of Chick-fil-A franchise owners keep their stores for life — they just won't spend those lives as millionaires.

They still have love for retired items

Every now and then, the chain does away with a beloved item, like their carrot and raisin salad. Chick-fil-A isn't trapped in the past. The restaurant regularly upgrades the menu and 2016 saw a swing to more healthy options. In came the Egg White Grill and out went the beloved Spicy Chicken biscuit. Pro tip: if you must order the egg white grill ask for the muffin well done, trust me.

The fall of the house of spicy is just the latest in a recent run of beloved items to be cut. The melancholy Chick-fil-A fan can take heart that the powers that be are as helpful as they can be when discontinuing an item. They have a Hall of Fame dedication on their website to the fallen foods, but you can't eat a website (yet). To mend broken hearts, they went as far as providing the cole slaw recipe gratis to soothe the faithful. But sometimes, that only goes far.

Some of their fails sound delicious

Not everything Chick-fil-A tries is a hit. They've tried very hard to make breakfast work — and for the most part you can say it's a success. With more than double the traffic in almost 10 years, CFA has come a long way from trying to explain that it's OK to have chicken for breakfast, but they did have some hiccups to creating their breakfast menu. As they freely admit, some items just didn't make the cut. Most, surprisingly, were just a hassle to make. Biscuit Cinnamon Rolls took too long to prepare, as did the famed secret menu item Chicken Quesadilla from the daytime menu. 

And then there's the story of the cranberry orange bagel. In theory, that sounds like a pretty square plan; who doesn't like the mix of fruits with a delicious bagel? Problem was, it was actually a square plan — the bagel wasn't round, but square. It came basically "on the side" with a piece of chicken and some cream cheese. CFA left this one at the planning stages and instead created the Chicken, Egg, & Cheese Breakfast Bagel.  

They were copied by a popular chef

Many a restaurant has tried to emulate Chick-fil-A; if you catch a fast food place dropping a pickle on a chicken sandwich, you know they "liberated" that idea from CFA. But not all copies are in the traditional quick-serve variety — famed chef David Chang (of Ugly Delicious on Netflix) has quite the affinity for fast food, and decided to take a shot at the famous Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich. At his "fairly quick" serve restaurant, Fuku, Chang went all-in and made a restaurant specializing in chicken — including a Spicy Chicken sandwich ala Chick-fil-A.   

Make no mistake, Chang has said his goal is to "Create the next Chick-fil-A," and on a small scale he's done pretty darn well. Fuku has outgrown their original location in the East Village and seemingly will continue to grow. So, how does it hold up against the original? Well, there are plenty of sites out there that have compared the two, and really that's up to your taste — but the Chick-fil-A sandwich isn't carrying a NYC price of around $8. Will a Fuku open up near you, and near your local Chick-fil-A? Only time will tell.

There's a Chick-fil-A secret menu

Having a secret menu is basically required in today's restaurant world, and Chick-fil-A is no different. There are a few hacks you can use on the Chick-fil-A menu to give yourself a special meal. Have 'em dump ice cream into a root beer to make a root beer float, add egg or cheese to pretty much anything on the breakfast menu, or make a sandwich a club by adding bacon, lettuce, and tomato. But the ultimate secret menu item is floating between breakfast and lunch.

Breakfast is quite popular at Chick-fil-A, and it's not a stretch to say they created the idea of having grilled chicken for breakfast. Among the items available before 10:30 a.m. is a chicken burrito. If you catch them at the right time — closer to 10:30 a.m. and not very busy, ask for a chicken quesadilla. It's basically an open-faced chicken burrito, with another burrito shell on top. Some places will take a burrito and flatten it out and fold it in half to create the quesadilla. Not every Chick-fil-A can make it. You might hear an excuse about not putting the burrito shell on the grill or something similar, but if you can talk them into it you're in for a treat. Throw some of the jalapeno salsa on top and you've got yourself the ultimate secret menu item.

Chick-fil-A sauce got an interesting start

Given the tight reins placed upon franchises, you wouldn't expect a lot of independent thought allowed in the stores. But the Chick-fil-A powers that be are a sometimes open to things that work, and a store in Fredericksburg, Virginia found the winning flavor.

Hugh Fleming ran the Chick-Fil-A in the Spotsylvania Mall. In 1983, he saw a need for a sauce to accompany the chicken nuggets. Originally, believe it or not, there were no sauces. He toyed around with some cole slaw dressing mixed with honey mustard, and later, by a happy accident, threw in a little barbecue sauce. Almost immediately people were asking for "Mr. Fleming's Sauce" and even filling up soda cups with the stuff and taking it home. It was exclusively available at that one location, and people were pretty upset that was the only Chick-fil-A that carried it. Chick-fil-A tried to make a copycat version on their own, and while the Honey Roasted BBQ wasn't bad, it wasn't Mr. Fleming's Sauce, either.

In 2007, Fleming gave Chick-fil-A the recipe. And we mean gave, literally. He doesn't take any royalty for the sauce. Chick-Fil-A took it national and gave it a name they obviously thought long and hard about: Chick-fil-A sauce. It is as big of a hit as it was in Fredericksburg. It's by far the most popular sauce they produce.

Chick-fil-A Sauce is a calorie bath

It's not unheard of for people to squirrel away a few packets of Chick-fil-A sauce to apply to their own home cooking. There are copycat recipes available, but before you go and crank up your own homemade awesomeness you might want to consider investing in an elliptical. A solitary, tiny little 1-ounce packet of Chick-fil-A sauce is a whopping 140 calories.

Chick-fil-A was mall-only for a long time

If you're a wee bit older, you might recall heading down to your local mall in the 1980s just to get your one-glove-wearing hand on some chicken and waffle fries. When Truett Cathy first opened Chick-fil-A, it was in a mall.

The idea behind Chick-fil-A, separate from Dwarf House, was quite an innovation. Cathy noticed the shift to indoor mall shopping, especially in muggy Atlanta, and figured people would eat indoors, as well. One of the early malls to pop up in the Atlanta area was the Greenbriar Mall, and Cathy chose that as the first Chick-fil-A, opening in 1967. No longer selling to other stores, Cathy used the mall location to get out his unique chicken sandwich. It was popular, obviously, and from there Chick-fil-A moved to other malls throughout the southeast and even into Florida. It wasn't until 1986 when Chick-fil-A constructed their first stand-alone store. Corporate experimented with drive-thru only locations (a few still exist) before deciding the brick and mortar, walk-in model was the way to go. Chick-fil-A continues to expand — if there's not one near you there probably will be soon.

They give away food for free — even on Sundays

If you really want free Chick-fil-A, there's an app for it. Chick-fil-A's official app rewards you for using the technology often with free food items after you reach certain thresholds. That's the easy way, but there's another way to get free grub. If you're one of the first 100 people at a new Chick-fil-A grand opening, you'll receive a coupon for one free meal a week for a year. Nowadays, you have to register to qualify, but in the old days you just arrived with a lawn chair or a tent, and waited for the doors to open. 

Chick-fil-A also isn't above giving away food for a worthy cause — and sometimes human tragedy outweighs their own "closed on Sunday" rules. In 2015, after devastating tornadoes ripped through Dallas, the local Chick-fil-A provided food to relief workers — on a Sunday. Likewise in 2016, after the tragic Pulse Nightclub shootings in Orlando, a Chick-fil-A near the club gave away food to first responders and those donating blood on the Sunday after the attacks.  

The founder's first restaurant suffered a major tragedy

S. Truett Cathy may have opened Chick-fil-A by himself, but when he began the Dwarf House he had a partner. Truett and his brother Ben Cathy started the restaurant in 1946 in Hapeville, GA restaurant.  

Ben and Truett were always go-getters; during the Great Depression the brothers each had a paper route and eventually became the family's primary breadwinners after their father's insurance sales paled in comparison to their paper routes. Later the brothers opened the Dwarf Grill (later to be the Dwarf House), making just a hair under $60 in sales the first day. A few years later, on a Saturday after his shift at the Dwarf, Ben and his other brother Horace planned a flight to Chattanooga (both were pilots) but they never arrived. The plane crashed in Dalton, GA, just about 35 miles south of Chattanooga. In a moment, Truett lost his only two surviving brothers (he lost another prior to his birth), and his business partner. Amazingly, he trudged on and less than 20 years later spun out his first Chick-fil-A.  

Fans get pretty riled up about barbecue sauce

Chick-fil-A might have thought a change to their barbecue sauce recipe in 2016 would go unnoticed, but it didn't happen like that — at all. 

Without warning, in came a smokehouse BBQ sauce and out went the beloved original BBQ sauce. Replacing the tangy southern style with a kinda "meh" flavor didn't go over well. It was pretty bad. Fans took to extreme measures to get their point across. And with what might just be the only online petition to actually work, Chick-fil-A caved. November 2016 saw the triumphant return of the original flavored BBQ sauce. And all that for what some say is their third most popular sauce. It doesn't hold a candle to the one named for the chain.

They're only big in the US

Chick-fil-A seems to be an all-American store — as in all the stores are in the U. S. of A. However, they have ventured into international territories in the past, including an attempt to create a market in South Africa. Chick-fil-A pulled out of the African nation in 2001, but there's a new store that qualifies them as being international.  

In 2014, CFA opened a Canadian location in the Calgary Airport — not exactly the first place you think of north of the border. Chick-fil-A's at an airport are a thing — and a pretty successful thing at that, so popping into a Canadian airport isn't too surprising. Chick-fil-A previously tried their hand in the land of poutine and toques in 1995, but that didn't pan out. Chick-fil-A's 2018 plan seems to be focusing on US locations — they're in 47 of the 48 contiguous states, leaving Vermont as the only mainland state sans Chick-fil-A.  

They're healthy-ish fast food

There's a reason people like to call Chick-fil-A "healthy fast food" — and compared to other places, it's certainly "more healthy," but it's still fast food. One thing that even the most ardent label-reader can't deny is that Chick-fil-A is indeed making strides to improve their product and make it "less bad for you."

In 2017, they introduced a gluten-free bun, available with their grilled chicken (it should be noted that the original chicken sandwich can't be gluten-free due to the crispy coating). The gluten-free bun comes pre-sealed to avoid cross contamination, and you have to build it yourself. In 2013, Chick-fil-A removed dyes and high-fructose corn syrup from their standard buns, and switched from iodized salt to sea salt on their fries in 2017. In a continuing effort to improve, they pledged to only use cage-free eggs by 2026. It's all an effort to show they're willing to make changes that consumers want to see.  

The origin of "My pleasure" is simple

Rarely has a restaurant become so synonymous with a phrase that wasn't some catchy commercial line, but CFA pulled it off with just a simple courtesy after they hand you your food. Did you even notice how often they say "My pleasure"? So where did it come from? Did it result from some decades-long research with thousands of test groups hearing hundreds of phrases until one finally stuck? Nope.

Chick-fil-A's version of the origin comes from founder Truett Cathy. Upon a visit to a Ritz Carlton, the kindly Cathy thanked a Ritz employee who snapped back with a simple, "My pleasure." The rest, as they say, is history. A Reddit AMA claims that the "My pleasure" isn't official — but at this point they can't put the genie back in the bottle if they wanted to; everyone knows to say it so it doesn't need to be an official thing anyway.

Their stance on LGBT hasn't hurt their business

We live in a time when social media can (and does) stir up trouble for a lot of businesses, and ironically enough the Twitter Mob tried to take out Twitter itself in June 2018. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, tweeted an image that implied he ordered Chick-fil-A during LGBT Pride Month. Given Chick-fil-A's well-known stance against same-sex marriage, Dorsey's tweet was interpreted by some as an act of tyranny. Dorsey, of course, apologized, saying he had forgotten about their stance. These incidents of outrage from activists are nothing new for the company, so are they hurting their business?

The short answer is no. Chick-fil-A's yearly sales are skyrocketing. They've almost doubled since 2012, the year Chick-fil-A's anti-gay marriage backing became national news. Calls went out for Chick-fil-A protests and boycotts — but that press attention may have surprisingly worked in their favor. CFA's sales rose in 2012 despite the backlash. It's possible that people who had never visited a CFA became curious what the place was about — and discovered a food they liked in the process. Lost in all the controversy is that CFA quietly decreased anti-LGBT funding after the controversy.  

The chicken is easy to copy

It's easier than you might think to make CFA chicken at home. There's a plethora of "copycat recipes" out there and basically there are two ways to do it; the "wrong" way and the real way. A lot of people presume that since there's a pickle served with the chicken, and there's a tangy taste to it, the secret marinade is pickle juice. It's not. The ingredients have nary a reference to pickle juice.  What you're tasting is just plain old vinegar. There's also MSG (which is safe despite what you hear otherwise) and a nice milk-wash. If you really want to make it taste like Chick-fil-A's follow this recipe — it'll be real close to the original, and it's the best way to have fresh "Chick-fil-A" on a Sunday.

There are some tasty creations on the horizon

Chick-fil-A is always trying out new items, and obviously some are more successful than others. In 2018, they jumped on the slider trend. If you're thinking Harold And Kumar style, eh… not exactly.  The Chick-N-slider is more like a breakfast Chicken Mini that suffers from gigantism on steriods. Charlotte, North Carolina, and Albuquerque, New Mexico are the two test markets (for now) — but as with most products if it sells well it'll be everywhere soon enough.  

Previously tested items like 2017's Spicy Grilled Sandwich remain available in test markets like Orlando, and Spicy Nuggets and Strips are being tested in Texas. This wasn't the first time CFA tried spicy nuggets, and as they answered in a Tweet from April 2017, they never really did well enough to make the menu. So if you're remembering a time from the mid 2000s when Chick-fil-A had spicy nuggets, you're not wrong; you just happen to be one of the few that liked them.