Dwarf House restaurant in Hapeville to reopen after renovation

John White IV, grandson of S. Truett Cathy, sits beside a statue of his grandfather during a break from giving a tour of the newly renovated Dwarf House, the first of Truett Cathey’s restaurants. The original building was only 512 square feet, which is why Cathy called it Dwarf House, while the new renovation expands it to 10,643 square feet while preserving much of it's past.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
John White IV, grandson of S. Truett Cathy, sits beside a statue of his grandfather during a break from giving a tour of the newly renovated Dwarf House, the first of Truett Cathey’s restaurants. The original building was only 512 square feet, which is why Cathy called it Dwarf House, while the new renovation expands it to 10,643 square feet while preserving much of it's past. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Founded in 1946, Truett Cathy’s first restaurant is where Chick-fil-A was born

It is said that the pyramids of Egypt have ancient wisdom encoded in their dimensions, which can teach us about pi, the golden ratio and the Pythagorean theorem.

The pyramids have nothing on the new Dwarf House, which has the history of Chick-fil-A built into its walls, windows, doors and floors.

Those doors include a three-and-a-half foot arched red door created as a visual joke when the pint-sized Dwarf Grill, founded in 1946, was replaced with a larger restaurant on the same site, in 1967.

ExplorePhotos of Dwarf House then and now

Hapeville’s Dwarf Grill was much smaller than any grill or diner in the 1940s — 512 square feet. It could serve 26 customers at a time, and hungry patrons waiting for a table had to stand out in the sun until founder S. Truett Cathy added a porch in 1957 and it became the Dwarf House.

Combined ShapeCaption
A bronze statuette of one of the original cooks, known as "Master of the Grill" is seen tucked inside a miniature door in one of the walls inside the newly renovated Dwarf House. There are 15 similar "dwarf" statuettes scattered throughout the building. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

A bronze statuette of one of the original cooks, known as "Master of the Grill" is seen tucked inside a miniature door in one of the walls inside the newly renovated Dwarf House. There are 15 similar "dwarf" statuettes scattered throughout the building.
  “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
A bronze statuette of one of the original cooks, known as "Master of the Grill" is seen tucked inside a miniature door in one of the walls inside the newly renovated Dwarf House. There are 15 similar "dwarf" statuettes scattered throughout the building. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

On Thursday, after a nine-month renovation, the new Dwarf House, which replaces the 1967 store, will once again be serving customers. Doubling in size to 10,647 square feet, the new structure dwarfs the original grill, but also pays tribute, with an outdoor dining area the exact shape and size of the 1946 store.

There are many other examples of historic references in the remodeled restaurant. With the care usually devoted to preserving relics of the saints, more than a dozen artifacts from the restaurant’s history have been transferred to, and incorporated into, the new building.

This adherence to tradition and canon isn’t capricious. While the Dwarf House is relatively unknown outside Atlanta, it is a revered institution in the metro area, both as the site of many a late-night rendezvous and as the cornerstone of the multibillion-dollar Chick-fil-A empire.

Cathy built his success by studying his customers carefully, and winning followers one at a time. The last thing the family wants to do is alienate those old-timers by ignoring their sentimental connection to the original eatery.

“It was such a memory place for people, that you didn’t want to just make it new,” said Reba Griesinger, a Red Oak, Texas-based Chick-fil-A employee and a “Grand Opening Trainer” who is in town to help the renovated store get off to a good start.

She offered a guided tour of the new facility, which is, in many ways, a museum as well as a restaurant:

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A photograph from 2006 of Truett and Jeannette Cathy sharing a milkshake hangs on a wall inside the newly renovated Dwarf House, the first of Truett Cathey’s restaurants. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

A photograph from 2006 of Truett and Jeannette Cathy sharing a milkshake hangs on a wall inside the newly renovated Dwarf House, the first of Truett Cathey’s restaurants. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
A photograph from 2006 of Truett and Jeannette Cathy sharing a milkshake hangs on a wall inside the newly renovated Dwarf House, the first of Truett Cathey’s restaurants. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

  • Cathy was notoriously prudent with money, and he acquired second-hand bricks to build the 1967 restaurant. Those bricks were disassembled and reassembled for several interior and exterior walls in the new structure.
  • There are 15 bronze “dwarves” — statuettes that represent significant personalities from the history of the business — hidden around the restaurant, including one for the original pie-maker Zelma Calhoun and another for Truett’s son Donald “Bubba” Cathy, recognizable because the figure is holding a ukulele.
  • The mid-1960s stained-glass windows from the 1967 building have been preserved and moved to the new place. In addition, those Hofbrau-looking diamond shapes are replicated in several spots as a design motif.
  • A wall-sized mural in a community room is a collage of tiny images of 2,568 Chick-fil-A locations (several hundred stores have been added since the mural was created), assembled in a photo-mosaic portrait of the original Dwarf House.
Combined ShapeCaption
One of several railroad-style lanterns from the 1967 Dwarf House hangs inside the main entrance of the newly renovated restaurant. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

One of several railroad-style lanterns from the 1967 Dwarf House hangs inside the main entrance of the newly renovated restaurant. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
One of several railroad-style lanterns from the 1967 Dwarf House hangs inside the main entrance of the newly renovated restaurant. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Dwarf House faced the railroad tracks across Central Avenue, and conductors would sometimes bring their locomotives to an unofficial stop, dash out and pick up a quick burger.

The railroad connection is alluded to in several parts of the new building: there is a schematic map of the local rail lines inlayed in the floor near the self-service entrance, and red-lensed railroad lanterns from the 1967 store illuminate the new restaurant, hanging from overhead beams made out of railroad ties.

Cathy put his grill in a fortuitous spot, where travelers from the new airport, railroad engineers, workers at the Owens-Illinois glass plant and the Ford factory would all come by.

Using a pressure-fryer, Cathy began working on a recipe for a chicken sandwich in 1961, and tried it out on these customers, finally hitting on a winning formula in 1964.

Cathy opened the first stand-alone Chick-fil-A in 1967, in the food court of Greenbriar Mall.

So what’s in that recipe that makes customers line up outside the average Chick-fil-A drive-through, 30 cars deep? Is it garlic powder? Dried onion? The question was posed to a third-generation member of the family business, John White IV, president of S. Truett Cathy Brands, which is a collection of specialty restaurants within the Chick-fil-A umbrella, including five other Dwarf Houses and the Hawaiian-themed Truett’s Luau.

Whippet-thin, dressed in a sharp grey suit and ankle boots, White strode about the not-quite-complete restaurant, greeting employees in at least two languages, as workers attached signage and spray-painted hula-hoop holders in the outdoor play area. White has probably gained not a pound since he was a walk-on kicker for the Auburn Tigers.

Combined ShapeCaption
John White IV, grandson of S. Truett Cathy, said his grandfather wanted things to be fun, which is why the renovated Dwarf House includes a play area with giant plastic waffle fries and pickle chips for children to climb upon. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

John White IV, grandson of S. Truett Cathy, said his grandfather wanted things to be fun, which is why the renovated Dwarf House includes a play area with giant plastic waffle fries and pickle chips for children to climb upon. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
John White IV, grandson of S. Truett Cathy, said his grandfather wanted things to be fun, which is why the renovated Dwarf House includes a play area with giant plastic waffle fries and pickle chips for children to climb upon. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

He eyed the questioner suspiciously. “Are you trying to create some competition?” he asked.

White would not divulge any details. “The recipe is under lock and key,” said Griesinger.

White’s mother, Trudy Cathy became an “operator” of a Birmingham Chick-fil-A franchise at age 19, taking a year off from school at Samford University to run the store. She hired fellow Samford student John White, giving him so many hours that eventually he got the message.

The two married, became missionaries in Brazil (where John IV grew up speaking Portuguese), and came back to the states after 10 years.

At age 25, John IV became an “operator” of a new franchise in Durham, North Carolina, near where he was going to graduate school in business administration at UNC Chapel Hill.

He makes the point that he started at about the same age as his grandfather, who never gave up starting new things. Truett Cathy, who died in 2014 at age 93, visited Hawaii late in life and had such a good time that he created the Hawaiian-themed restaurant Truett’s Luau nine months before he died.

“He was always pioneering, always inventing,” said White. “It kept him young, kept him engaged.”

Unlike the Dwarf House, most Chick-fil-A restaurants don’t provide table service, nor do they offer some of the old-time menu items that are still popular in Hapeville, including the “hot brown” (made with chicken, cream, cheese and bacon) and the “city ham breakfast platter.”

Last spring, just before the nine-month renovation began, the Dwarf House held a ceremonial “last bite” farewell to the old structure. Customers were invited to write down memories of the Dwarf House. Those handwritten memories were captured and turned into wallpaper in one corner of the self-serve side of the new restaurant.

“May 1966,” reads one. “I had early morning breakfast after my prom and sat across from my future husband. We were both here with different dates at the time.”

Just like the Dwarf House, she danced with the one that brought her, but wasn’t afraid of going steady with somebody new.