The first two arrived at 4:45 a.m., a full hour and 15 minutes before the camp-out officially began. They brought with them: two lawn chairs, one 30-inch television, one Play Station 2 console, several video games (including the new Madden), several DVDs, and a generator. There was no need to bring food. Snacks and beverages were taken care of—thanks to Truett Cathy.
When 6 a.m. the next morning finally arrived, 37-year-old Doug Weaver and his 30-year-old accomplice, Cassidy Perry, were the first in a stream of campers to walk though the side door of St. Petersburg, Florida’s newest Chick-fil-A and back out via the front, the proud owners of 52 coupons, each good for a free Chick-fil-A meal.
Weaver and Perry were the first, but there were 98 behind them—and at least another 50 or so who did not make the cut. In all, more than 150 people spent a chilly January night sleeping in a parking lot off St. Petersburg’s Tyrone Boulevard. It was the third or fourth Chick-fil-A camp-out for some. But it was Andrew Cathy’s first.
Andrew operates the Tyrone Boulevard store. He is 27, a former track coach and high school economics and accounting teacher. He, like every operator in the Chick-fil-A system, invested exactly $5,000 in his store. He paid by personal check.
The opening of Andrew’s freestanding unit was celebrated with a free giveaway of $26,000 worth of food and a camp-out hosted by Chick-fil-A’s CEO—as have 22 store openings since October 2003. Per Chick-fil-A tradition, established operators from nearby cities were there, too. Some drove as long as four hours to help serve free nuggets to the faithful posted outside and break down Chick-fil-A’s “second-mile service” to new employees inside. The opening of Andrew’s Tyrone Boulevard was typical Chick-fil-A, right down to the prayer of thanksgiving offered before the building officially opened for business. The only atypical thing about the celebration was Andrew himself.
As the nephew of Don “Bubba” Cathy, son of Dan Cathy, and oldest grandson of Chick-fil-a founder Truett Cathy, Andrew represents the first of a third generation of Cathys to enter the family business. Eleven other grandchildren wait in the wings. Whether Andrew’s younger brother and cousins join him in the family business remains to be seen, but the plan of action that will ensure their smooth initiation is already in place.
Roots run deep at Chick-fil-A, Inc., and they’re not limited to the Cathy family tree. The company estimates that more than 30 families have at least two generations represented among Chick-fil-A’s operators. One family of operators has three. And then there are kids like Caylor Bermudez, the daughter of a Chick-fil-A field operations director.
Seventeen-year-old Bermudez is a part-time hourly employee and a member of Chick-fil-A’s official “opening team.” Several times a month, she travels across the country to help host grand-opening celebrations. At Andrew’s “premiere night” camp-out, Bermudez alternated between shifts at the information table, training new employees inside the store, and entertaining campers with her guitar.
At her Peachtree City, Georgia, home store, Bermudez is a team leader, charged with being a positive influence on her co-workers and assisting with training and hiring. “My operator will ask me, ‘What do you know about this person?’” she says. “We won’t just hire anyone.”
Ask Bermudez how long she plans to work for Chick-fil-A, and she’ll tell you, “As long as I can.” She has designs on a corporate job once she graduates from Atlanta Christian College. Her future husband, she hopes, will be part of Chick-fil-A’s extended brood too—an operator, perhaps. “The people are great to work with,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.”
Caylor’s career plans are not without precedent. “Sixty to 65 percent of [our] executives worked at Chick-fil-A as youngsters,” Truett says. “Eighteen boys from my Sunday school class made a career at Chick-fil-A.”
Once an employee becomes entrenched in the Chick-fil-A culture, it is not uncommon for him/her to move into an operator role. Even internal candidates, however, must satisfy Chick-fil-A’s “Three Cs of Operator Selection” by exhibiting “competency, chemistry, and character.” More than 10,000 would-be operators apply for less than 20 opportunities each year.
“We’re not looking for the typical owner/investor,” says Don Perry, Chick-fil-A’s vice president of public relations. “We want coaches, on-site management.”
With that strategy, Chick-fil-A, Inc. reached $1 billion in systemwide sales in 2000 and $1.7 billion in 2004. President Dan Cathy is proud of his company’s 80-percent retention rate among hourly employees. Among operators, the rate is 97 percent, including retirements, he says. Dan credits those numbers to the tight controls kept on who may wear a Chick-fil-A nametag. “It’s easier to get a job in the CIA than at Chick-fil-A,” is a favorite saying at the corporate office. And it applies to family members, too.