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Chick-fil-A chief talks faith, business before Utah visit

Published July 23, 2011 5:03 pm

Chick-fil-A • Company boss is joking, but his eateries do serve up meals with sides of faith.
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For a company that sells chicken sandwiches, it's perhaps an unlikely creed.

But Dan Cathy, president and chief operating officer of Chick-fil-A, believes wholeheartedly in the company's corporate purpose statement: "To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A."

Cathy plans to visit Utah next week, spending time at some of the company's 12 Utah restaurants, speaking at various events and talking about the two newest eateries, which will likely open in Sugar House and Layton in September. Expect him also to discuss the importance faith has played in the business.

Since Cathy's father, S. Truett Cathy,founded Chick-fil-A Inc. in the 1960s, the Baptist family has prided itself on running Chick-fil-A under religious principles. The restaurants are closed on Sundays, employees participate in optional, weekly devotionals and it's not unusual for Dan Cathy to carry a New Testament in his pocket as he goes about his day.

This religious commitment has drawn cheers and jeers, including earlier this year when a restaurant operator in Pennsylvania decided to furnish food at events intended to strengthen marriages sponsored by the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a political advocacy group that opposes same-sex marriage. Gay-rights groups balked, and calls went out to boycott Chick-fil-A. Cathy issued a statement that said that while he and his family believe in the "biblical definition of marriage" they respect those who disagree and that the restaurant's decision was not meant as an endorsement of the group or its mission.

In anticipation of Cathy's visit to Utah, The Salt Lake Tribune spoke with him about his faith, his company and how the two work together.

Q:What role does faith play in your business?

A: I think faith has a role in every business, whether it's acknowledged or recognized as such or not. But our faith here drives our valuesand principles upon which businesses have to operate, things like honesty, integrity, service to others, compassion, humility. Our faith, it drives all those. ... I believe that God, who designed man and built man to be in his likeness, has a perfect plan for how we should interface with others ... in marriage, in parenting, as well as the incredible direction that he's given us as to how business people should operate.

Q:What are some specific examples, if I were to walk into one of your restaurants, of how I might see that?

A: Our whole service paradigm is driven by that passage that comes from the Scripture Matthew chapter 5, verse 41. Jesus is talking about how to get along with people who may be very different, have different views and be in conflict, and Jesus said the way you resolve conflict is you turn the other cheek. You give someone your coat even though you only had to give them your shirt. Then he says if someone asks you to go one mile, go with them the second mile. We've actually rebuilt our whole service experience, the recipe for service as we call it, around Matthew chapter 5, verse 41. ... In our restaurants, to do the unexpected, what people would not expect, we learned a lot from what you would see in fine dining restaurants, and rather than charge them $35, we're still charging $6 for a Chick-fil-A sandwich, waffle fries and a fresh-squeezed lemonade. But we put fresh flowers on all our tables. We offer fresh ground pepper for those people eating our soups and salads. We oftentimes escort people, carry their trays to the table.

We've actually taught etiquette training classes to 60,000 of our team members who work at Chick-fil-A, which is all about how do you treat people with honor, dignity and respect. ... The reason for that is we want the brand to mean something and that comes from another Scripture verse, Proverbs 22:1. Solomon said this: 'A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches,' so we want to develop a reputation, or in other words, a good name that people can consistently expect delicious food and remarkably different service experiences.

Q:Why close on Sundays?

A: It's consistent with what we read in the Bible that if we'll honor the Lord Jesus in all of our ways, then he will direct our paths and help us make wise choices and decisions. So we've been committed to that for 65 years, and we intend to maintain that policy. In fact, we actually generate more business in six days than we believe that we would in seven days.

Q:Why do you believe you generate more business in six days than you would in seven?

A: Our food tastes better on Monday when we're closed on Sunday (laughs). We've had a chance to rest and relax and be with our family, be with our friends and worship, perhaps, if that's your choice to worship. It drives your attitudes on Monday, and you're incrementally better on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Q: Where did your faith come from?

A: I grew up in an authentic genuine Christian home, a home in which we studied the Scriptures, we worshipped regularly, we had prayer in our home. We were taught to tithe as children. ... All those teachings that we had actually stuck among my brother and sister and I.

Q:Has your faith changed through the years as you've worked more and more with the business?

A: We've certainly been tested more and more over the years, big issues and small issues. Of late, for instance, we spent two hours this morning studying the Scriptures as to how we should respond to the gay/lesbian challenges that we've been faced with within the last six months and try to understand what voice should we have in that discussion and how should we equip our people to the kind of challenges that we are getting from the gay/lesbian community because we're so pro-family. We're very pro the traditional family of a husband and a wife in marriage, parenting children. We are not politicians and we don't want to get into having a political voice here, but we support, financially and otherwise, organizations that are going to be strengthening society and raising young men and women that are of the character that we would want in our restaurants.

Q:Did you come to any conclusions?

A: Well, it was a great discussion, and we've got to remember that our corporate purpose is a guiding light for us here and, again, it says we're to glorify God, and one of the ways we do that is to acknowledge his word and the clarity of what Scripture has to say about the importance of the family, so I think it was just affirming that. But at the same time it was also a discussion about how can we have a positive influence on people and give positive encouragement and support for all people and being able to be respectful of all people. ... I think the gay/lesbian community has had so many rocks thrown at them by people who have even malicious motives, perhaps, even, and how anti-biblical that is, that we're not to judge others. That's for God to do and we're clearly called, as Christ said, we're to love and be engaged in selfless acts of kindness toward others.

Q: How has it been to deal with this issue?

A: It's been an incredible response we've had, really across the board. We had no idea that simply giving some Chick-fil-A sandwiches to a local church in Pennsylvania would erupt into a national story that's been covered on all the networks, and it's simply because we gave sandwiches away that that was interpreted as being part of an anti-gay hate group, which how in the world somebody could come to that conclusion bewilders us. But again, I think that points out how sensitive that some elements of the ... community are because they've been lashed out at and [been dealt with] in such a rude manner that perhaps everyone that believes otherwise is characterized as having that same viewpoint, which, of course, is not true at all.

Q:There are a lot of religious people in Utah. How do you think the business works in Utah as a business that's very conscious of religious principles?

A: Our business has been huge in Utah. ... It's a rapidly growing market for Chick-fil-A. We're investing more and more of our resources into that market so we're excited about it.

lschencker@sltrib.com —

New restaurants

New Chick-fil-A restaurants will likely open in Sugar House and Layton in September, and the company is also considering opening as many as five more outlets in Utah in the next year and a half, with possible locations in St. George, Murray, Provo/Orem and downtown Salt Lake City.






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