Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy fought way up from poverty

Truett Cathy stands inside the first Dwarf House resturant that he opened in Hapeville, Georgia 50 years ago. (AJC Photo/Johnny Crawford) 5/96

Truett Cathy stands inside the first Dwarf House resturant that he opened in Hapeville, Georgia 50 years ago. (AJC Photo/Johnny Crawford) 5/96

In a great American success story, S. Truett Cathy rose from hustling peanuts and Cokes on Atlanta’s streets to founding the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain, which became the No. 1 purveyor of chicken in the U.S. this year.

Cathy, who died early Monday at age 93, enjoyed near rock-star status late in life, loved as much for his stick-to-your-guns Christian principles as for the boneless fried chicken sandwich he pioneered.

Chick-fil-A’s are closed on Sundays, and Cathy put his Sunday-school lessons and plain old politeness into his work. His employees are known for their consistent reply “It’s my pleasure” when interacting with customers.

“I see no conflict whatsoever between Christianity and good business practices,” Cathy said in 2006. “People say you can’t mix business with religion. I say there’s no other way.”

The company’s Christian identity rubbed some the wrong way, with accusations and lawsuits that claimed the chain discriminated against non-Christians, gays and others with different viewpoints.

And some in the business community questioned the privately-held company’s wisdom in closing on Sunday, a potential loss of billions of dollars in annual revenue. The genial Cathy explained that it was more important that Sunday be a day of rest for the company’s workers and customers.

“People appreciate you being consistent with your faith,” he told an AJC reporter . “It’s a silent witness to the Lord when people go into shopping malls (Sundays), and everyone is bustling, and you see that Chick-fil-A is closed.”

071231 ATLANTA: Grand Marshall Truett Cathy, founder Chick-fil-A, waves to Auburn and Clemson fans as the Chick-fil-A Bowl Parade makes it’s way to the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Monday, Dec. 31, 2007, as the official kickoff for the game. CURTIS COMPTON / Staff

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Credit: Curtis Compton

At a press conference Monday at the chain’s location next to the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta, Tim Tassopoulos, Chick-fil-A’s executive vice president of operations, said Truett Cathy never planned for the company to be as large as it has become.

“Truett’s Chick-fil-A was a place to give others good food, a warm smile and a break in their day,” Tassopoulos said. “It also was a place where Truett could invest in people, giving them a first job, a place to learn about hard work and a place for many to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams.”

As news of his death spread, Chick-fil-A fans responded. The outpouring came from everyone from consumers to elected leaders to business people who worked very closely with the iconic restaurateur.

“They’re serving up chicken nuggets and waffle fries in Heaven today!” posted Jeff Leach on Twitter. “What a man and what a legacy.”

“Your vision made something we all love, and your values gave us something to admire,” posted Andrew McIntire on Facebook.

George Goodhart of Dunwoody had just finished his breakfast at Chick-fil-A on Monday morning, pondering what he believed would be the greatest legacy of the restaurant’s founder.

“Very good food and the customer service,” Goodhart said at one of the chain’s restaurants on Johnson Ferry Road. “They have a different business philosophy. They understand taking care of the customer. You can sit here and watch the very, very good interaction between the employees and the customers.”

SEPTEMBER 8, 2014 HAPEVILLE A memorial sits outside the Dwarf House location about the death of Chick Fil A founder Truett Cathy Monday, September 8, 2014. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

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Starting life in poverty, Cathy opened a tiny diner on the outskirts of Atlanta and built it into into a juggernaut. He was inspired by Napolean Hill’s motivational tome “Think and Grow Rich,” whose mantra was, you can achieve whatever your mind can conceive.

“I had a low image of myself because I was brought up in the deep Depression,” Cathy said in a 2008 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I struggled to get through high school. I didn’t get to go to college. But it made me realize you can do anything if you want to bad enough.”

Devotees would swoon when he spoke at conferences and book signings about his early years as a Hapeville restaurateur and the origins of his marquee chicken sandwich, while business leaders would pay rapt attention to his instructions on commitment to quality. His company was the envy of peers for its superior service and for its long-running, iconic advertising campaign featuring spelling-challenged bovines.

There were some missteps along the way. Cathy tried to grow the brand internationally with stores in South Africa, for example, only to retreat.

Yet operating six days a week, the company had sales of more than $5 billion in 2013 and toppled KFC a year earlier as the top U.S. chicken chain, though KFC is larger in worldwide sales.

As his health deteriorated, Cathy had slowed down and trimmed his appearances. Late last year his son Dan Cathy, who had been the company’s president, was promoted to chief executive officer and chairman while his father was given the title chairman emeritus.

But to most, Chick-fil-A will always be connected to its colorful founder.

Cathy began tinkering with boneless chicken at his hamburger haven, the Dwarf Grill (now Dwarf House) in Hapeville, which opened in 1946 largely to serve nearby Ford plant workers. He spent four years devising the ingredients for his famous sandwich, which he began selling in 1961 before the ultimate formula was settled.

The motorcycle-riding, God-fearing Cathy resisted the temptation to take the company public. He wanted free rein on charitable ventures, which included sponsoring foster homes, summer camps and academic programs.

Former President Jimmy Carter, a Cathy friend, described the restaurateur’s faith: “In every facet of his life, Truett Cathy has exemplified the finest aspects of his Christian faith … By his example, he has been a blessing to countless people,” Carter said in a statement. “We are fortunate to be among those whose lives he has touched.”

Born in 1921, Cathy got this start in the food business at 8, with his mother’s help. He erected a Coke stand in the front yard and chilled the bottles with frozen chunks of ice bought from an ice man who came by on a horse-drawn carriage. He would buy a six-pack of “Co’colas,” as he called them, for a quarter and sell them for 5 cents each, netting him a nickle for every six-pack. He was at the time a poor boy wearing shoes stuffed with cardboard, according to his book, “Eat Mor Chikin: Inspire More People.”

In winter, when demand for a frosty soft drink waned, he switched to magazine subscriptions.

He served in World War II and came home to build, with his brother Ben, the Dwarf Grill, near Candler field which became Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Cathy continued running the restaurant, named for its petite size, after Ben’s untimely death and began experimenting with the “chicken steak” sandwich that has become the chain’s beloved hallmark.

In later years, Cathy shifted his energies to charity — mainly foster homes and homes for abused and neglected children. And he launched the WinShape scholarship program at Berry College, bestowed mostly on young Chick-fil-A employees.

The family torch has been passed to another generation of Cathys. In early 2006, grandson Andrew Cathy began operating a franchise in St. Petersburg, Fla.

At the grand opening, the family and business patriarch said, “It was the best day of my career.” He expressed the wish that his other grandkids would carry on his vision.

“I feel confident they will make it work for the next generation,” said Cathy, 84 at the time. “I’m not going to be around forever.”

He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Jeannette McNeil Cathy; sons Dan T. and Don “Bubba” Cathy; daughter Trudy Cathy White; 19 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be made to the WinShape Foundation, which was founded in 1984. Donations can be sent to: WinShape Foundation, 5200 Buffington Road, Atlanta, GA, 30349.

Staff writer Christopher Seward contributed to this article, as did former writers Mike Tierney, Gayle White, Maria Saporta and Joe Guy Collier.

Chick-fil-A facts

Founded: 1967

Headquarters: Atlanta

Business: Family owned and privately held chicken sandwich chain

Restaurants: More than 1,800 in 40 states and Washington D.C.

Sales: $5 billion in 2013

Employees: 75,000, including corporate staff and workers employed by franchised operators.