Truett Cathy: From Rags to Richness
Out of poverty and hardship comes a devoted businessman and philanthropist
May 23, 1946. The smell of freshly cooked steaks and hamburgers emanated throughout a diner in the backwoods of Hapeville, GA. Truett Cathy and his brother Ben, having set out to make their appearance in the restaurant scene, opened the Dwarf Grill. With four tables and ten stools at the counter, their first-day sales totaled fifty-eight dollars and twenty cents. Despite its humble beginnings, the quaint, family-operated diner would soon revolutionize the food industry faster than you can say, “Eat More Chicken!”
“Like wealth, poverty also has the power to build us up and make us appreciate what we have, or it can break our spirits.”
— Truett Cathy
While the Great Depression had the world in its grip, Truett’s family was no exception to its wrath. His father, an insurance agent, quickly lost money and became very despondent, abandoning the family unit. At the age of eight, the young entrepreneur noticed that he could buy a six pack of Coke for only a quarter at his neighborhood store. Truett then sold the cokes for five cents a piece, totaling a five cent profit
Unable to support themselves, the family moved out of the government supported Techwood Homes community. It was during this time that Truett’s compassionate mother opened up a boarding house. Truett served as her devoted assistant, helping tend to the needs of those who passed through.
Out of poverty and hardship came something greater. This was a man who had a vision. This was a man who, having been transformed, could not be stopped.
“We didn’t invent the chicken, just the chicken sandwich”
The Family Business
Following their tenure in the United States Army, Truett and Ben were ready to go into business together. What started as a desire to open a grocery store ended with a plan to open up a restaurant. Doing so was no easy task. Whether it was using scrap building supplies, hanging their own sheetrock, or even selling Truett’s car to help pay for the building, the duo found ways around any obstacle.
The Man. The Myth. The Chicken Sandwich.
After having sold beef products for quite some time, Truett began experimenting with chicken, a familiar item from his mother’s kitchen. He insisted on perfecting the craft of preparing and cooking the delicate white meat. He first realized that serving chicken did not bring much of an increase in sales, but sought to find its potential. Less fattening, more nutritious, and more economical than beef, chicken became the prized ingredient for the frugal, yet ambitious man.
Truett worked endlessly on his recipe by eliminating the bone to make a “chicken filet”, developing a pressure fryer apparatus that used peanut oil, and placing the golden delicacy between two buns to eliminate greasy fingers. Later came the “crucial pickles” to give the sandwich character and a refined recipe of seasonings for the filet. Customers raved about the new sandwich, and it soon saw more sales than the juicy hamburgers and steaks previously sold at the Dwarf Grill.
1949. Ben Cathy, along with brother Horace, flew a plane to Chattanooga. Their plane crashed near Dalton, Georgia, and Truett lost his brothers and a business partner in the wreckage.
“When I saw where Ben made out the report sheet on Saturday afternoon in good health, I realized again that he would never be back, and my tears flowed.”
Moving forward with the family business, Truett continued to run the Dwarf House with his wife, Jeanette. He began working longer shifts to compensate for the tragic loss. To allow a day of rest for himself and his employees, Truett closed the restaurant on Sunday, a familiar practice still followed to this day in the Chick-fil-A corporation.
A Brand is Born
Truett’s sister, Gladys, operated a gift shop in Atlanta’s first enclosed shopping mall, Greenbriar Shopping Center. Whenever Truett visited Greenbriar, he noticed that there were very few places to eat. Encouraged by his sister to bring his revolutionary chicken sandwich to the mall, Truett proposed this idea to the Greenbriar manager who promptly discouraged the idea, arguing that customers would trash the mall.
Despite the negative feedback, in 1967, Truett founded the first Chick-fil-A unit. It was squeezed into a little cubbyhole of the Greenbriar mall, an area about thirteen by thirty feet. The menu was built around the basics: the boneless breast chicken sandwich, potato fries, coleslaw, lemon pie and lemonade.
Today, Chick-fil-A reaches millions of customers annually with $5.1 billion in sales from over 2,100 stores nationwide. To open a franchise is a laborious process and involves many measures that ensure the chain stays true to the values set forth in the original Dwarf House. In fact, the company only opens between 75 to 80 new franchisees a year out of the possible 20,000 candidates.
Beyond the Chick-fil-A brand that we know and love today, Truett’s legacy reaches far and wide. He established the WinShape Foundation, aimed to assist youth and Chick-fil-A employees alike in receiving a college education. In response to his father’s absence in his life, Truett desired to help other children who were missing one or both parents and established foster care homes supported by profits from Chick-fil-A’s WinShape Foundation.
From rags to richness of life, it is no question that Truett Cathy’s servant heart and his transition from poverty to being a philanthropic entrepreneur left its mark on modern society.
Parker, Dick. “A Life Centered on Family.” Chick-fil-A. N.p., 11 Aug. 2016. Web. 10 July 2017.
Severson, Kim. “S. Truett Cathy, Chick-fil-A Founder, Dies at 93.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 08 Sept. 2014. Web. 10 July 2017.
“S. Truett Cathy: Photos.” S. Truett Cathy. CFA Properties, n.d. Web. 10 July 2017.