- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 24, 2001

COLLEGE PARK, Ga. Chick-fil-A has built a billion-dollar business selling chicken, yet its headquarters is a bovine bonanza.

The corporate fleet of vans and Lincolns sport bovine black splotches, cow-tinted windows, cow seat covers and license plates beginning with "cow." Employees favor cow-themed neckties.

The Holstein cows that beg people to "Eat Mor Chikin" and the Holy Bible are cornerstones of Chick-fil-A Inc., the family-controlled chain that closes every restaurant on Sundays and has refused the entreaties of Wall Street money managers and private investors such as Warren Buffett to sell even the tiniest piece of itself.

"There's too much at risk for us to do something like that," said Dan T. Cathy, who took over as president and chief operating officer in June. His father, 80-year-old company founder S. Truett Cathy, is chairman and chief executive.

The investment offers likely will increase as Chick-fil-A, of College Park attained two long-standing goals within the past year surpassing $1 billion in annual sales and opening the doors to its 1,000th restaurant.

The seasoned, breaded chicken-breast sandwich Mr. Cathy toyed with 55 years ago as a kitchen experiment has helped Chick-fil-A become the second-largest fast-food chicken restaurant in the United States, after Kentucky Fried Chicken, with restaurants in 34 states and the District of Columbia.

The Cathys insist the closed-on-Sunday policy will never change because of their Southern Baptist beliefs and the desire to give workers at least one day off each week.

Chick-fil-A expects to surpass $2 billion in annual revenues by 2006 and $3 billion by 2010, fueled by the spread of the company into new markets such as Chicago, New York, New England and Southern California. The company plans 77 new eateries next year.

Officials won't disclose net income, but Dan Cathy said Chick-fil-A has enjoyed a decade of consecutive same-store sales growth, a retail measure of locations open at least a year. Sales jumped 116 percent between 1996, the year after the cows' debut, and 2000.

Chick-fil-A officials feel they're somewhat insulated from economic downturns, with menu prices in the middle of the fast-food range. Chick-fil-A's average sale in $5.25.

"Things got to be pretty bleak before folks can't come in and eat with us," Dan Cathy said.

Chick-fil-A grew from a tiny, never-closed diner Truett Cathy and his brother started in 1946 after their stints in the Army.

Situated between the Atlanta airport and Ford Motor's Hapeville assembly plant, business boomed especially after Mr. Cathy started slicing chicken breast from the bone.

The boneless chicken sandwich quickly became more popular than his hamburgers. The seasoning recipe sits in a company safe.

The original sandwich remains a staple, although the company has added wraps, desserts and waffle-cut fries since the early days. Fresh-squeezed lemonade remains a unique draw.

The company closed its three South African stores this year after losing money in an experiment the Cathys say they are not likely to repeat soon. Truett Cathy said he will be long dead before another Chick-fil-A opens outside the United States.

"We're not planning to get like McDonald's or Burger King," he said.

The company requires $5,000 from prospective franchisers and a yearly fee equal to 15 percent of the operator's revenue. Net income is split with the company, which guarantees operators a $30,000 minimum annual salary.

Truett Cathy, his two sons and five vice presidents gather each Monday morning as the company's executive committee. Strategic decisions are hashed over until a consensus emerges.

Last year, Dan Cathy and his siblings presented their parents a letter pledging to keep the company moored to its "heritage and traditions" as a virtuous, family-operated business that won't go public.

"Most businesses don't survive into the second generation," he said. "And we're planning on surviving and thriving into the second and third generations and beyond that."


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