Step Aside, Colonel Sanders

Chick-fil-A store front

Step Aside, Colonel Sanders
| Published March 29, 2014 |

By Thursday Review staff

For decades it was the undisputed champion when it came to the sales of fast food chicken. Kentucky Fried Chicken, which by the middle aught years was operating over 5,500 restaurants in North America and hundreds of other retail locations worldwide, has lost its poultry crown to upstart Chick-fil-A.

The latest restaurant sales numbers now show Chick-fil-A is the biggest seller of fast food chicken products in the U.S., outpacing the “finger lickin’ good” food sold under the auspices of a kindly, smiling “colonel” from the Deep South.

Chick-fil-A’s business advantage is not necessarily magical. Indeed, many business analysts suggest that the College Park, Georgia-based restaurant company uses a simple formula—make more sales per restaurant by moving customers in and out faster. This strategy is imparted to all franchise operations without exception (unlike some restaurant chains, Chick-fil-A retains chief ownership of nearly all locations) and has in fact allowed Chick-fil-A to outpace even McDonald’s in average sales per restaurant. For Chick-fil-A that total is $2.7 million per restaurant; for McDonald’s it is $2.4 million.

What makes Chick-fil-A’s success more remarkable is that it has achieved these numbers with a six day workweek (all locations are closed on Sundays) and with roughly 1775 restaurants, compared with the many thousands of McDonald’s and KFC locations.

Many Thursday Review readers in places like Seattle, Cheyenne and Las Vegas may be unfamiliar with the format. Indeed, Chick-fil-A currently operates no restaurants in Oregon, Nevada, Montana, North or South Dakota, and a cluster of New England states. The heaviest concentrations of locations can be found in the South and along some East Coast states. Texas has 270 location, Georgia 200, North Carolina 144, and California 62. But some states have only one location, such as New York, Washington, Wyoming and Michigan.

Chick-fil-A’s success cannot be easily explained by any single element or business strategy.

Chick-fil-A has, over the past decades, excelled through the use of out-of-the-box (pun intended) advertising crafted to make its menu items stand apart. Its longstanding “Eat More Chicken” ads, which feature cows attempting to promote—sometimes clumsily—the merits of chicken as an alternative to beef fast food, have been an enduring and award-winning part of TV, print and billboard marketing for years.

Chick-fil-A also maintains a point-of-sale process which is a marvel to many in the restaurant business. Most returning customers say what they like most about Chick-fil-A is the speed at which they are greeted and the efficiency used to fill their order. Customers often remark on how quickly and smoothly the transaction goes—and this is often done in direct comparison to slow (or notably bad) experiences in other restaurants like McDonalds, Burger King or KFC.

Another mark in Chick-fil-A’s favor is the quality of the food. As those familiar with the menu know, the restaurant specializes in chicken sandwiches, chicken nuggets and chicken salads—all made with fresh chicken. It also serves fresh fruit. This might seem contrary to the typical fast-food template, but, according to some restaurant analysts, this business formula works well because of the tremendous turnaround of the product. The fresher ingredients have less shelf and storage life, but Chick-fil-A sells its products quickly, eliminating the need for the heavier processing and preservation typical in other fast food operations. (Chick-fil-A has faced criticism for its use of yellow dye, which it removed from soup products last year, and for its use of antibiotics, which it has pledged to phase out over the next several years. Along with several other restaurants, including McDonald's, Burger King and Applebee's, Chick-fil-A also faced a lawsuit over its used of extreme high-heat preparation of chicken, a practice which some studies indicate may be linked to a higher risk of cancer).  

Chick-fil-A has also benefited from recent health trends as Americans battle obesity and the images of the traditional hamburger and cheeseburger have been battered. Chick-fil-A has shrewdly exploited this growing awareness, and markets its menu accordingly.

Chick-fil-A has said it plans to begin expanding its locations into new territory in the near future. Its origins can be traced back to Truett Cathy and the late 1950s and early 1960s, and to a single restaurant in Atlanta near what was then a large Ford Motor Company assembly plant. The restaurant’s menu specialized in chicken sandwiches, and many of its customers were employees of the nearby factory.

Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) is owned by Yum Foods of Louisville, Kentucky. Its first restaurant was opened by Harlan Sanders in 1930 near Corbin, Kentucky. Sanders owned and operated the company, which grew rapidly throughout the 1940s and 50s, but in 1964 due to advanced age and poor health, he sold the entire chain. The new owners, a team of investors which included John Y. Brown and Jack C. Massey, requested that “Colonel” Sanders remain a part of the company’s iconography. R.J. Reynolds, the food and tobacco giant purchased KFC in the 1970s, and Reynolds later sold it to Pepsi.

Trivia: Sanders first sold his specially seasoned fried chicken at a tiny roadside diner at the height of the Great Depression. His diner was located in what had been a Shell gasoline station on U.S. 25 near Corbin, Kentucky, at that time a very busy highway. Since frying the chicken in pans was extremely messy and time consuming—up to 30 minutes or more—and since he wanted to be able to serve hot chicken quickly to hungry passersby, he developed his own system of “frying” chicken inside superheated pressure cookers, using a breading and seasoning he developed to replicate the texture and color of traditional pan cooking.

Years ahead of Ray Kroc, Sanders saw the franchise arrangement as having potential for profit, and the first “spinoff” KFC restaurant was opened not in the Deep South, but in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Taco Bell is Clowning Around; Thursday Review; March 28, 2014.