- In 1946, Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy opened the Dwarf Grill in Hapeville, Georgia.
- Years later, in 1967, Cathy invented the restaurant’s original chicken sandwich, a menu item that would catapult his restaurant business to fame and success.
- Today, Chick-fil-A has been voted America’s favorite fast-food chain, despite a history of controversy over same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ issues.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
It’s the third-largest fast food chain in America, it was named America’s favorite fast-food chain, and it’s home of the original chicken sandwich – that’s right, we’re talking about Chick-fil-A.
In the course of nearly three-quarters of a century, Chick-fil-A grew from a small roadside diner to one of the biggest and most influential chains in the US. During that time, the chain introduced a number of new menu items, experienced leadership changes, and responded to criticism over the brand’s “Christian values” and donation practices.
However, one thing is for certain – the rise of America’s biggest chicken chain isn’t slowing anytime soon.
Here’s how Chick-fil-A has changed through the years, from its roots as a suburban diner to America’s favorite fast-food chain.
Chick-fil-A’s origin story began when S. Truett Cathy opened the Dwarf Grill in Hapeville, Georgia, in 1946.
The small roadside diner was later renamed when it became one of the chain’s “Dwarf Houses.” The original location is now one of 12 Chick-fil-A locations serving modern favorites and items from the original restaurant’s “blue menu.”
The first official Chick-fil-A locations were located in shopping malls.
The first restaurant to bear the name Chick-fil-A opened in the Greenbriar Mall in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1967.
According to The Chicken Wire, the restaurant occupied just 384 square feet and some have credited the chain with being an “early pioneer” of what would become the modern mall food court.
Chick-fil-A opened its first stand-alone restaurant in 1986 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Free-standing locations are now the norm for Chick-fil-A, and mall locations are much less common.
Chick-fil-A also experimented with drive-thru-only restaurant locations.
The first-ever drive-thru-only Chick-fil-A restaurant opened in 1993 in Greenville, South Carolina. By eliminating dining rooms in these locations, the restaurants were designed to be faster and more convenient for customers.
Today, there remain just 35 Chick-fil-A restaurants nationwide that are drive-thru-only.
Today, there are more than 2,500 Chick-fil-A restaurants in North America.
While the chain was founded in Georgia, still has its headquarters there, and is regarded as a “Southern” fast-food chain, restaurants can actually be found in 47 different states as well as Washington, DC.
In 2019, Chick-fil-A expanded internationally when it opened its first location in Toronto, Canada. Later that year, the chain opened its first restaurant in the United Kingdom.
While Chick-fil-A continues to add locations in Canada, its location in Reading, England, closed after being met with protests and public outrage over Chick-fil-A’s controversial history regarding LGBTQ+ issues.
Before Chick-fil-A began using a cow as its mascot, the chain was represented by — perhaps unsurprisingly — a chicken.
The chain’s tag line used to read, “The best thing that ever happened to a Chicken.”
Now, Chick-fil-A’s slogan pays homage to its most famous menu item — its chicken sandwich.
According to The Chicken Wire, the “A” in Chick-fil-A comes from both a plan on the word “fillet” and a nod to the “grade A top quality chicken” used in Chick-fil-A’s chicken sandwiches.
However, the chain also still uses cows and the words “Eat Mor Chikin” to bring customers through its doors.
According to The Chicken Wire, the “Eat Mor Chikin” slogan accompanied by two “rebel cows” debuted in 1995 on an Atlanta, Georgia, billboard. The campaign quickly gained traction and is now regarded as one of Chick-fil-A’s most famous and successful advertising campaigns.
The original Dwarf Grill menu served diner favorites like breakfast and burgers.
Menu items included everything from waffles to sandwiches, steak and potatoes, and the chain’s famous Hot Brown, a hot casserole dish made with lean white meat chicken, gravy, mashed potatoes, cheese, and bacon.
These items don’t appear on modern Chick-fil-A menus, but can still be ordered at the Dwarf House in Hapeville, Georgia.
Today, Chick-fil-A still serves breakfast, but the menu items look much different.
Launched in 1986, the first item added to the breakfast menu the Chick-fil-A chicken biscuit.
Today, the Chick-fil-A menu has more than 40 different menu items.
When the Dwarf Grill first opened, you could order burgers.
The Dwarf Grill served both hamburgers and cheeseburgers, which the restaurant’s menu claimed were made from “100% choice beef, chopped in our kitchen.” Served on a large toasted bun, the menu also boldly stated that “they’re the best.”
Business Insider’s Hayley Peterson tried the burger for herself when she visited the Dwarf House, calling the patty “thick and flavorful” and the cheese “melted perfectly between the patty and the bun.”
Today, you won’t find burgers on any Chick-fil-A menus, but you will find the chain’s famous chicken sandwich.
In 1964, Truett Cathy created the recipe for Chick-fil-A’s original chicken sandwich: a fried chicken boneless breast nestled between two buttered buns and topped with two pickles. According to a previous article by Business Insider, there was nothing like it on any other fast-food menu.
Though the sandwich soon shot to popularity at the Dwarf House, the invention was odd compared to other fast-food offerings and food tastes of the time. According to The Chicken Wire, the USDA reported that in 1961, the average American ate an average of 50 pounds of beef per person annually. However, Cathy’s bet on chicken would soon pay off.
Though Chick-fil-A has expanded immensely since the launch of its chicken sandwich, the recipe has remained virtually the same.
In 1989, Chick-fil-A added a grilled chicken sandwich to its menu.
Introduced as a “health-conscious option” for Chick-fil-A customers, Cathy introduced the original grilled chicken sandwich alongside the deluxe grilled chicken sandwich, which included the same pickle-juice-marinated grilled chicken, pickles, and white bun, along with lettuce and tomato.
According to the restaurant’s website, Cathy tested more than 1,200 recipes to perfect the chain’s grilled chicken recipe.
Chick-fil-A revolutionized its menu yet again when it launched its spicy chicken sandwich nationwide in 2010.
“While we recognize that not everyone enjoys spicy food, for the growing customer constituency that does, our Spicy Chicken Sandwich offers a unique, well-balanced and cravable spicy flavor,” William F. Faulk, Chick-fil-A’s vice president of innovation and new ventures, said in a press release at the time.
A precursor to Chick-fil-A’s famous fries was its fried okra, a traditional Southern favorite.
“The batter on the outside is light and crispy, and the okra inside is hot and juicy, with a hint of salt,” Retail reporter Hayley Peterson said in a previous Business Insider article.
Today, the chain’s waffle fries are a beloved menu item.
The chain began selling waffle fries in 1985, according to The Chicken Wire. Since then, the item has grown to become the chain’s most popular menu item, even beating out the original chicken sandwich.
In 1982, chicken nuggets were added to the menu.
The first Chick-fil-A nuggets came in a six-count box, inspired by customers asking restaurant employees to cut up pieces of its signature chicken sandwich so that they could eat it by hand or serve the bite-sized nuggets at parties.
“We are still serving the same delicious nuggets today that we started with,” Shona Jonson, senior manager of culinary, product strategy and development at Chick-fil-A, once said, according to The Chicken Wire.
Today, Chick-fil-A chicken nuggets come as a four-count, six-count, eight-count, 12-count, or 30-count.
Chick-fil-A introduced grilled chicken nuggets in 2012.
The item first appeared on the chain’s kid’s menu before being added to the main menu.
Chick-fil-A’s success is largely credited to the chain’s founder and CEO, S. Truett Cathy, a devout Baptist who built the family-owned business on Christian values.
Cathy’s impact on Chick-fil-A is undeniable, from his decades working at the Dwarf Grill to the invention of the chain’s famous chicken sandwich.
Another part of Cathy’s legacy that led to Chick-fil-A’s success was its unique process of hiring franchisees that also upheld the chain’s values of “customer first, personal excellence, continuous, improvement, working together, and stewardship.”
As a leader in his community and creator of the first Chick-fil-A scholarship fund for restaurant employees, Cathy carried a legacy that inspired franchisees and employees across the country to continue carrying on his mission of a customer and employee-focused fast-food chain.
Today, Cathy’s son, Dan T. Cathy, leads the company as chairman and CEO.
Dan T. Cathy was made CEO in 2012, two years before his father passed away. Described by the chain as the CEO of “one of the nation’s largest family-owned businesses,” Dan T. Cathy works alongside his brother Donald “Bubba” Cathy, who serves as executive vice president of the chicken chain and president of the company’s Dwarf House and the Truett’s Grill restaurant concepts.
Both Donald and Dan T. Cathy recall growing up in their father’s early restaurants, doing odd jobs like scraping gum from underneath tables and spending time in the Hapeville Dwarf House.
Today, Dan T. Cathy spends little time at Chick-fil-A’s headquarters, choosing instead to travel around the country visiting different Chick-fil-A locations.
Over the years, the Cathy family and Chick-fil-A have received criticism and faced backlash for their apparent stances on issues like same-sex marriage.
Chick-fil-A’s contentious reputation largely stems from donations made by Chick-fil-A to charities that have a reputation for being anti-LGBTQ, as well as comments made by Dan T. Cathy in 2012.
According to a previous article by Business Insider, the Cathy family and Chick-fil-A donated millions of dollars to groups opposing same-sex marriage, from Christian charities to “more extreme” anti-LGBTQ lobbying organizations through the WinShape Foundation.
Some of these organizations included Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an athletic organization that, according to Vox, requires applicants to sign a “sexual purity statement” that condemns LGBTQ relationships, the Marriage & Family Foundation, which has spoken out against marriage equality, and Exodus International, a group that supported the use of gay-conversion therapy.
Comments made by Dan T. Cathy in a 2012 interview with the Baptist Press quickly prompted backlash from LGBTQ activists and organizations.
In the interview, Cathy stated that he believed in the “biblical definition of the family unit,” i.e. that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. Protests ensued nationwide, including a number of “kiss-ins,” led by LGBTQ activists, at Chick-fil-A restaurants across the country.
Others came out in support of the chain and Cathy’s comments. Following the controversy and subsequent calls for boycotting the brand, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee created a Facebook page encouraging people to participate in “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” and buy food from the chain on that day.
Cathy did little to quell criticism of his comments when he later clarified his comments in a radio interview, saying, “As it relates to society in general, I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you do as to what constitutes marriage.'”
Protests against the company predate the chain’s controversial donations and comments made by Dan T. Cathy.
In 2002, a Houston Chick-fil-A restaurant manager sued the chain for discrimination, according to Forbes. The employee, who is Muslim, claimed that he was fired one day after refusing to pray to Jesus along with their fellow coworkers during a training session. Forbes states that the suit was settled out of court on undisclosed terms.
Then, in 2011, a Pennsylvania Chick-fil-A prompted a nationwide boycott of the chain when the restaurant provided free lunch to a Valentine’s Day marriage seminar sponsored by the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a controversial “pro-family” group that has spoken out against same-sex marriage.
The decision prompted criticism, including a petition that gathered thousands of signatures urging Chick-fil-A to stop discriminating against LGBTQ people. However, the franchise in question claimed the decision to donate food was not motivated by any anti-LGBTQ sentiments.
“It’s absolutely, categorically blown out of proportion,” the Pennsylvania franchise owner Brian Gibson said, according to Penn Live. “We donate food all the time. We certainly don’t take into consideration anyone’s political affiliations or anything like that. We just like to feed people.”
Dan T. Cathy released a statement in 2011 following the accusations that Chick-fil-A was anti-LGBTQ, saying, “In recent weeks, we have been accused of being anti-gay. We have no agenda against anyone. At the heart and soul of our company, we are a family business that serves and values all people regardless of their beliefs or opinions. We seek to treat everyone with honor, dignity, and respect and believe in the importance of loving your neighbor as yourself.”
Cathy continued, saying, “While my family and I believe in the Biblical definition of marriage, we love and respect anyone who disagrees … Chick-fil-A’s Corporate Purpose is ‘To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us, and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.’ As a result, we will not champion any political agendas on marriage and family.”
It does appear that Chick-fil-A is trying to overturn their reputation as being anti-LGBTQ.
In 2019, Chick-fil-A announced it would no longer donate to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Salvation Army, two groups that have been criticized as being anti-LGBTQ.
“We made multiyear commitments to both organizations, and we fulfilled those obligations in 2018. Moving forward you will see that the Chick-fil-A Foundation will support the three specific initiatives of homelessness, hunger, and education,” a Chick-fil-A representative said in a statement to Business Insider.
However, some LGBTQ advocates stated that while they were hopeful about the decision, Chick-fil-A still has a ways to go before the chain can be called truly inclusive to the LGBTQ+ community.
“In addition to refraining from financially supporting anti-LGBTQ organizations, Chick-fil-A still lacks policies to ensure safe workplaces for LGBTQ employees and should unequivocally speak out against the anti-LGBTQ reputation that their brand represents,” Drew Anderson, the director of campaigns and rapid response for GLAAD, an organization that condemns LGBTQ discrimination, said in a statement.
Despite a controversial past, chairman and CEO Dan T. Cathy has not made any public comments surrounding same-sex marriage or LGBTQ issues in recent years.
However, recently, the CEO has not shied away from speaking about racial issues, the impact of COVID-19 on minority communities, and a lack of educational opportunities.
While neither Dan T. Cathy nor the chain specifically mention the Black Lives Matter movement in the statement put out by Chick-fil-A, he did share his thoughts on why “racism has no place society,” saying, “This is a time that we must love our neighbors more than we have ever done before, with greater empathy than ever before.”
The Chick-fil-A CEO continued, saying, “the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and many others [are] horrifying and merits our outrage. We should also address the disparate impact of COVID-19 on black and brown communities, as well as the disparity in educational opportunities and access to opportunity.”
Despite a series of controversies, the fast-food chain has continued to grow.
According to a previous article by Business Insider, anti-same-sex-marriage comments said by Dan T. Cathy in 2012, controversial donations, and resulting backlash over the years have done little to slow Chick-fil-A’s growth.
Today, Chick-fil-A is the third-largest chain in America and one of the most popular chains among customers. In 2019, the chain reported $11 billion in sales and a year-over-year sales growth of 13%, according to Restaurant Business.
One thing is for sure – while Chick-fil-A has an undeniably controversial past, there’s no stopping the chicken chain from winning over customers nationwide, one chicken sandwich at a time.
- Read more:
- Chick-fil-A continues to dominate customer satisfaction rankings as the fast-food chain takes over America
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- 17 things you never knew about Chick-fil-A
- How Chick-fil-A became the center of American culture wars and conquered the country over the last decade