It can be said that the key to Jesus Christ's longevity is his ability to inspire action and reflection while reinforcing oneself.
For some Marxists, He was a socialist revolutionary. For Thomas Jefferson, He was a philosopher. And for certain Mahayana Buddhists, He was another Bodhisattva in a long line of avatars.
But for the heir of one of the nation’s largest fast food franchises, Christ was the archetypal restauranteur.
“Jesus had a lot to say about the market place,” said Dan Cathy, president and COO of Chick-fil-A, after his lecture Wednesday on business ethics at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights. “He had to a lot to say about money and finances...He loved to cook, He loved to eat and He loved to use food in that hospitality environment to talk about how to build relationships.”
He also never charged anyone for a meal. But to Cathy, that’s beside the point.
“Leaders should be serving rather than trying to be served,” Cathy said, and then paraphrased a favored verse. “The greatest among you is the server of many.” He’s also fond of Proverbs 22:1, choosing the language from the Bible’s New International Version (NIV): “A good name is more desirable than great riches.”
The Chick-fil-A business model, as developed by Cathy’s family, has two dimensions. It makes quick-to-order, relatively inexpensive chicken sandwiches, waffle fries and shakes.
But for years, the Cathy family labored on the relevance of scripture and found encouragement to go beyond traditional fast food ambiance from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. Much of the beatitudes “talk about how to deal with disgruntled customers,” Cathy said, but a particular line stuck with his forebears: “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:41, NIV). Today, the company prides itself on carrying food to people’s car, pulling out chairs and providing fresh ground pepper like a fine dining restaurant.
“In other words, give them value twice for what they paid for,” Cathy explained.
Kevin Bulmann, who operates the franchise in Orland Park, said Cathy even bused his plate the first time they met. Each franchise, even those operated overseas, is closed on Sundays.
“We can't have influence unless we build a relationship with someone," Cathy said, "and food has always been a way to come to common ground. It's a very important component to negotiations.”
The Biggest Mega Church in Town
Cathy couldn’t be more than 5 feet 5 inches, but his southern-fried drawl has no trouble warming an auditorium of Yankees. He joked often, finding a pair of eyes in the first couple rows and holding an impish smile as the room erupted around him. Least of all did he quarrel about the nutritional content of his food, regaling the audience on one occasion to drink “800-calorie” milkshakes responsibly. It’s what’s meant by comfort food.
“When the rate of internal change exceeds the rate of external change, prosperity is around the corner,” he said, pulling a cell phone from one pocket and a miniature bible from the other. “This thing reminds me of all things that are changing, and this reminds me of all things that hasn’t changed, and never will change."
It’s this visual dichotomy between technology and scripture, faith and commerce, modernity and antiquity which Cathy posits often and well. He said they vie for his attention, and some nights he goes to bed wondering whether one is overshadowing the other.
So, who does Cathy want to “influence” and how? Little do people realize, “We also operate the biggest mega church in town.”
“Commit your ways unto the Lord,” Cathy advised, “and your thoughts should be established. I was just in a conversation yesterday with some people that were talking about students today who were very fuzzy on what they wanted to do. It’s probably fuzzy because they haven’t committed their plans to the Lord. As a result, it’s very aimless. It’s very fuzzy out there.”
He proceeded to roll a video in which lonely people of all ages—widows, orphans, the unemployed—flock to his restaurant. The 65-year-old company’s motto is printed clearly on souvenir drinking glasses: “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.”
Bookending the event were prayers lead by Trinity staff, one of whom called upon diminishing the line between faith and work. A healthy home, Casey would add, makes a profitable business. The goal of both is to bridge the gap between “what we say on Sunday and what we do on Monday.”
Afterwards, Cathy signed copies of his father’s book, Eat Mor Chikin: Inspire More People, and then joined 150 guests at a private dinner party. Before the night was over—if it ended at all—Cathy flew to Atlantic City, N.J., where he was expected to camp outside his newest restaurant with Chick-fil-A fanatics for the morning’s grand opening celebration.
The cult of Chick-fil-A, as some employees have dubbed it, reaches far and wide. Cathy said the chain was encouraged to open in this area through videos which implored the company to come north. Orland Park, Aurora and Wheaton are the only locations near Chicago.
Blessed are those who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness
If the goal is invariably Christian, could an atheist, Jew or Jain do what Cathy does?
“Absolutely,” he responded. “I don't know who they are, but we have non-Christians who work for Chick-fil-A that do very well. They just take these principles and apply. I would say that any business that is successful over a long period of time is operating on these principles, whether they acknowledge it or not.”
Officially, religious belief isn’t a requisite to work within the company. Rather, Cathy urged, recruiters are instructed to look for “the three Cs”: competence, character and chemistry.
A non-believer couldn’t be found amongst Wednesday’s lecture. Just knowing Chick-fil-A is a “good Christian company,” even if they had trouble defining the phrase or if their denominations differ, was enough to cause many students and neighbors to come hear Cathy, a Baptist, speak.
“In today’s business world—especially in ethics and today’s dog-eat-dog environment—it’s not really that easy (to apply Christian principles),” said Andrew Humme, student and son of Trinity’s vice president for development. “But I feel like if you start it from the ground up that way, it’s just easy to maintain that way, and I feel like that’s what Chick-fil-A has done. I think they started off with a Christian perspective and a Christian philosophy and is consciously involved in this bigger picture.”
Like one of his videos, age had no bearing on Cathy’s message.
“It was inspirational, really,” said Palos Heights resident Janet Evans. “In a world filled with greed, it showed that the all-mighty dollar isn’t always in front of every business.”