What I Learned From Truett Cathy

In July 2009 I was hired by a Chick Fil-A in Louisville, Kentucky. I was a sophomore in college and a freshman in life. Chick Fil-A (affectionately abbreviated as CFA) took a chance on an awkward 20 year old with no previous job experience and gave me the opportunity to pay for college and gas until I left in October 2010.  My debt-free graduation last year was at least partly CFA’s doing, which is why I want to pay a personal respect to founder Truett Cathy, who passed away this morning.

I never met Mr. Cathy, but the businesses he founded was so molded in his image that I can honestly say I did know him. I knew his values; “customer service” was a cheap word for what we were trained to do at CFA. In fact, our managers trained us to use the word “guest” instead of “customer.” A customer is someone you serve but a guest is someone you welcome. Cathy understood the power of language and ritual in creating a culture. The guest may not have always been right (oh, the stories I have!), but the guest always mattered.

Showing up on time mattered too. I was typically a very punctual employee, but one time I was confronted for clocking in 5 minutes after my scheduled shift time. It was ridiculous, overbearing and anal; except, of course, to my coworker whom I was meant to relieve. Even in enforcing standards, CFA was careful to go to bat for its employees. Not every thing was good, of course, but again: I mattered. My coworkers mattered. That alone is enough to set CFA far, far apart from the fast food industry.

I was paid above minimum wage, remarkable given my almost total lack of professional references. Every employee was given a free meal every time they worked, which I found out later is definitely not industry-standard. Off the clock, food was 50% off for employees and members of their household. That could add up quite a bit for a college student who still lived at home. I worked with several guys who planned on their shift meal being their evening’s dinner. The perks mattered.

Cathy’s well known policy of closing on Sunday has probably handcuffed CFA’s profits about as much as any restaurant’s policy has ever handcuffed them. I can guarantee you that, were CFA open on the Lord’s Day, it would burst at the seams with customers. CFA has held fast to this policy in the face of what was I’m sure incredible temptation to abandon it, particularly in economic downturn and the decline of the strip malls that introduced America to Cathy’s food. For Cathy and Chick Fil-A, principle mattered.

For these reasons (and more), I cannot take seriously anyone who accuses Cathy or his business of homophobia merely because he votes his values. Such a statement is ignorant and hateful, yes, but it’s also absurd. The entire legacy and culture of what Truett Cathy accomplished in Chick Fil-A is one of great appreciation for people–guests and employees alike–and a sense that doing the right thing, even when hard, matters. Those lessons I learned in my time in Mr. Cathy’s restaurant. For that, I am very thankful.

 

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