Fast-food’s old guard is giving way to a savvy new guard that is slowing-down the process and giving a needed nod to healthier ingredients.
With Monday’s death of 93-year-old Truett Cathy, the legendary founder of Chick-fil-A, the $200 billion fast-food industry finds itself at a generational crossroads. The direction that Cathy’s wildly-successful company takes going forward — under the leadership of his sometimes controversial son, Dan — could determine if an old guard fast-food chain can evolve to the new guard.
It doesn’t happen often. But in 47-year-old Chick-fil-A’s case, it’s certainly possible. The chain, already know for stellar customer service and better-than-most food quality, is increasingly pushing its way onto college campuses where the next generation of fast-food eaters seems willing to stand in long lines for its offerings.
The chicken chain with more than $5 billion in annual sales is listening and responding to the needs of Millennials by promising to remove antibiotics from the chicken, high fructose corn syrup from its dressings and perhaps even plastic from its serving trays.
But the privately-held chain with deep Southern Baptist roots still is listening and responding to a higher power by refusing to open its doors on Sundays.
Under conservative CEO Dan Cathy — famous for comments, for which he has since apologized, that questioned gay marriage — Chick fil-A is eager to attract Millennials. It’s almost as if Dan Cathy is quietly vying for a place among the most Millennial-wise fast-food CEOs: Chipotle’s Steve Ells, Panera’s Ron Shaich and Howard Schultz of Starbucks.
His father,Truett, who started with a diner in Atlanta in 1948 and opened his first Chick-fil-A there in 1967, was part of a very different generation of entrepreneurs, eager to attract Baby Boomers to drive up for a fast bite. His fast-food peers included the likes of Ray Kroc of McDonald’s; Dave Thomas from Wendy’s and, of course, KFC’s Colonel Harland Sanders.
“He was pretty much the last of that generation of true fast-food innovators,” says Christopher Muller, professor of hospitality at Boston University. “Truett changed the business because he invented the boneless chicken sandwich.”
That boneless chicken sandwich — which made him a billionaire — has since been mimicked by many major fast-food chains, including McDonald’s.
It was the aftershock of the 9/11 bombings in 2001 that forever-changed the fast food industry. “People started looking for different kinds of comfort,” says Muller. Some stayed home. Some sought different kinds of food.
“Today’s 22-year-olds don’t frequent fast-food like the generation before them,” says Robin B. DiPietro, professor of hospitality at University of South Carolina. “Fast food will have to morph into something fresher and healthier.”
The fallout is clear. Chipotle and Panera and Starbucks are on a tear. “They slowed it down and took a step back,” says DiPietro. “They gave the guest a place to sit and have an experience.
Meanwhile, McDonald’s same-store sales in the U.S. have started to head south. U.S. Burger King is trying to grow by purchasing Tim Horton’s — arguably Canada’s Number One comfort food seller. And Chick-fil-A, which recently became a bigger chicken seller than KFC, is on an extended mission to test its wings as a Millennial-loving chain.
“Chick-fil-A is right on the fence,” says DiPietro.
Truett Cathy won’t get to see if the chain successfully evolves from old guard to new. His funeral is on Wednesday.
But Panera founder Ron Shaich says Chick-fil-A already has accomplished that — and more — thanks to Cathy’s vision.”The guy is a hero to us all,” says Shaich, in a phone interview. “When you build true value over time, the customers will come.”