7 Reasons Why Chick-fil-A Remains Immensely Popular

Chick-fil-A has come a long way since opening its first restaurant in an Atlanta mall food court in 1967. What started as a small diner serving chicken sandwiches has grown into the third-largest restaurant chain in the United States by sales, with over 2,600 locations across the country. The family-owned business generates more revenue per restaurant than any other fast-food chain, despite being closed every Sunday.

So what is the secret sauce behind Chick-fil-A‘s immense popularity and success? As a retail and consumer expert who analyzes the strategies of top brands, I‘ve identified several key factors that have enabled this Southern chicken chain to cultivate an extremely loyal customer base and experience remarkable growth, even amidst occasional controversy. Let‘s examine the main reasons why Chick-fil-A has become America‘s favorite fast-food restaurant.

1. Doing a Few Things Really, Really Well

At its core, the Chick-fil-A menu is fairly simple, centered around its flagship product—the original chicken sandwich. Founder Truett Cathy spent years perfecting his recipe before opening his first diner. The sandwich consists of a breaded and pressure-cooked chicken breast served on a buttered bun with two pickle chips—that‘s it.

By focusing on a specific menu item, Chick-fil-A has been able to develop strong expertise and maintain a level of quality and consistency that keeps customers coming back. The chain uses fresh, high-quality ingredients including hand-cut potatoes for its waffle fries and hand-breaded chicken that is never frozen.

While the menu has expanded some over the years to include grilled chicken sandwiches, nuggets, strips, breakfast items, salads and sides, Chick-fil-A has resisted following the trend of many fast food chains to overextend into too many options. It has intentionally kept its menu focused, which reduces complexity, improves efficiency, and ensures it can deliver the taste and quality customers expect across all its restaurants. That commitment to consistency is a key differentiator.

2. Delivering a Top-Notch Customer Experience

Beyond the food itself, one thing that truly sets Chick-fil-A apart is its exceptional customer service. The company makes a significant investment in hiring and training employees to go above and beyond.

Walk into any Chick-fil-A and you‘ll reliably be greeted with a smile and the chain‘s signature phrase "my pleasure." Place an order and your name will be taken. Need a refill or extra sauce? An employee will happily retrieve it for you rather than pointing to self-serve stations. Tables are quickly bussed, trash is picked up, and restrooms are checked and cleaned frequently.

This attentiveness and hospitality is ingrained in every team member from their first day on the job. Chick-fil-A wants customers to feel cared for and strives to make every visit pleasant and memorable. While it may seem like common sense, delivering this level of fast, friendly service on a large scale is actually quite difficult in the quick-service restaurant industry. But Chick-fil-A has systematized it and executes it well across all its locations.

The drive-thru experience is equally impressive. Despite serving a high volume of customers, especially during peak lunch and dinner rushes, Chick-fil-A boasts the fastest and most accurate drive-thrus in the industry according to annual studies. Multiple employees armed with iPads take orders car-side to keep the line moving quickly. They‘ve turned it into a science.

By making customer service an integral part of its brand identity and operating model, Chick-fil-A has differentiated itself from the competition and earned unmatched customer loyalty. Regulars often rave about the restaurant‘s level of care and personal touches. That‘s enabled Chick-fil-A to consistently rank #1 in the American Customer Satisfaction Index for limited-service restaurants.

3. Staying True to Its Roots and Values

From the very beginning, Chick-fil-A has sought to be more than just another fried chicken joint. Founder Truett Cathy was known for his strong Christian faith, and those beliefs have guided the company‘s business practices and philanthropy over the years.

The most visible demonstration is Chick-fil-A‘s longstanding policy of staying closed on Sundays to give employees a day of rest and worship. While that means forgoing sales and revenue one day a week, Cathy believed it was more important to stick to his principles and give workers time with family. For many of the chain‘s loyal customers, the policy showcases Chick-fil-A‘s integrity and people-first mentality.

Chick-fil-A is also dedicated to serving local communities through programs like college scholarships for employees, donations to food banks and schools, and disaster relief. Giving back is a core part of the company‘s DNA.

While Chick-fil-A faced backlash and boycotts in 2012 when CEO Dan Cathy voiced his support for "the biblical definition of the family unit," which some viewed as opposition to same-sex marriage, the company has worked to be more inclusive in recent years. It cut ties with controversial charities and has welcomed all customers and employees regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. By being responsive to shifting social mores, Chick-fil-A has been able to move past the incident without losing its corporate identity.

4. An Unconventional Business Model

Chick-fil-A utilizes a unique business model compared to most of its fast-food competitors. Rather than having a typical franchise arrangement, Chick-fil-A selects operators for each of its restaurants through a rigorous process. These operators are essentially managing a restaurant for Chick-fil-A and receiving a share of the profits, but don‘t own the restaurant itself or have as much autonomy as a traditional franchisee.

Chick-fil-A gets far more applications than it has operator roles available (some 60,000 a year for around 100 spots), allowing it to be extremely selective. Operators don‘t need to have prior restaurant experience or a certain net worth, but they do go through several rounds of interviews to determine who is the best cultural fit and most likely to be successful. Once in the role, operators can‘t own other business ventures and must be free of any other active business ventures, enabling them to focus wholly on their Chick-fil-A location.

By being so selective and closely controlling the operator model, Chick-fil-A maintains tighter control over operations compared to other franchises. That‘s enabled it to develop a strong bench of management talent and ensure more consistency across locations.

Another unique aspect of Chick-fil-A‘s model is its strategy of buying real estate and building restaurants itself, then leasing them to operators. It scouts busy intersections, malls and outlets for prime locations. By taking on the upfront capital costs and owning the real estate, the company keeps costs down for operators while building a significant real estate portfolio that helps fuel its growth and financial stability.

5. Creating Buzz With Clever Marketing

Chick-fil-A‘s advertising has become iconic. Rather than using actors or stock imagery, the company‘s in-house agency has built campaigns around "Eat Mor Chikin" messaging delivered by Holstein cows. The quirky ads appear on billboards, merchandise and across social media, delivering humor and building brand affinity.

Chick-fil-A generates significant buzz via word-of-mouth marketing as well by mobilizing fans to be brand advocates. When it opens a new location, it distributes free food vouchers to nearby residents to encourage them to try it out and spread the word. Many locations host "First 100" events where the first 100 customers in line win free Chick-fil-A meals for a year—a tactic that generates publicity and rewards the most loyal customers.

The Chick-fil-A One mobile app, launched in 2016, has also been a highly effective marketing tool. It allows customers to order ahead, skip the line and access exclusive offers. The tiered membership program (Chick-fil-A One Silver, Red and Signature) rewards frequent visitors with more points per dollar spent. By gamifying the experience, Chick-fil-A drives repeat visits and larger tickets.

6. Embracing Innovation and Growth

While the core Chick-fil-A menu and experience has stayed consistent over the years, the company hasn‘t remained stagnant. It has gradually expanded its product offerings to keep up with evolving consumer tastes and dietary needs, such as adding a grilled chicken sandwich, superfood salads, yogurt parfaits, and a kale crunch side. Seasonal milkshakes like peppermint chocolate chip and autumn spice offer additional variety.

On the operations front, Chick-fil-A has remodeled many of its older restaurants and introduced new store formats such as drive-thru only locations to serve more customers faster. It is exploring artificial intelligence to make the drive-thru ordering process more automated. And when COVID-19 hit, Chick-fil-A quickly pivoted to launch delivery service, contactless payments, and family meal bundles to make getting meals easier and safer during lockdowns.

Moving forward, Chick-fil-A still sees plenty of runway for growth. The chain plans to open 120 new locations in 2021, entering new markets like the Pacific Northwest. It is also eyeing global expansion plans with a location in Toronto and 15 more planned for Canada by 2023. Future success may depend on whether Chick-fil-A can translate its unique brand of hospitality and menu to new cultures.

7. Bouncing Back From Controversy

No major company is immune from occasional missteps and controversy. As mentioned earlier, Chick-fil-A faced significant backlash in 2012 after CEO Dan Cathy expressed views against same-sex marriage. LGBTQ activists called for boycotts and organized "kiss-ins" at restaurants to protest the chain. Several cities took steps to block Chick-fil-A from opening new locations.

While these events certainly tarnished the brand‘s reputation in the eyes of many (and the company still donates to some organizations with anti-LGBTQ stances today), Chick-fil-A managed to weather the storm and emerge even stronger. In fact, in the days after Cathy‘s comments came to light, sales actually surged over 30% as customers lined up to show their support for the company and its leadership. The chain leaned into its identity and values.

Since then, Chick-fil-A has made an effort to be more inclusive by providing sensitivity and diversity training to employees, as well as being more careful about its charitable giving. While it still promotes traditional Christian values, the company has sought to welcome all customers, regardless of beliefs or identity. In 2019, Chick-fil-A actually received a slightly above-average score in the Human Rights Campaign‘s buyers guide assessing corporate LGBTQ-related policies and practices.

By sticking to what it does best—serving high-quality food with exceptional customer service—Chick-fil-A was able to transcend the negative headlines and rebuild trust with fans. While not everyone will agree with the founder‘s beliefs, there‘s no denying that Chick-fil-A restaurants remain immensely popular. Boycotts have faded into the background.

The Bottom Line

Chick-fil-A‘s story contains valuable lessons for any business aiming to build an enduring, beloved brand. By staying focused on the core product, investing in talent, delivering a consistent customer experience, supporting local communities, and finding creative ways to continually delight customers, the chicken chain has developed a very devoted fanbase. Despite now being one of the largest fast-food chains in the country, Chick-fil-A has retained a personal touch that is all too rare in its industry.

Of course, maintaining such high standards becomes harder as a company grows, especially at the rapid clip Chick-fil-A is targeting. The chain acknowledges that it must work hard to preserve its culture and operating principles on a larger scale so as not to lose the special "secret sauce" that has made it so successful over the past five decades.

Controversial stances on social issues may also continue to impact Chick-fil-A‘s reputation in the years ahead, especially as younger consumers increasingly select brands that align with their values. The company will have to be clear in its messaging and take meaningful actions to showcase its inclusive, welcoming nature if it wants to earn the business of Gen Z and Millennials.

Still, Chick-fil-A has built an incredibly strong brand and durable business model. By remaining focused on serving mouth-watering chicken sandwiches and providing unparalleled fast-food service with a smile, Chick-fil-A seems poised to keep growing its passionate customer base across markets new and old. The future still looks bright for the Southern chain.