(Adapted from a Facebook comment. I have never eaten at one of these franchises, beyond testing out their minimal concession at the NYU snack shoppe.)
Chick-Fil-A must be the worst fast-food franchise name choice since Mahalia Jackson’s Dirty Rice. Unattractive, unmemorable, and a puzzle to pronounce. (Is it CHIK filla? Chick File-Uh? Chick File-Ay?)
But I have very poor judgment in fast-food matters. Back in August 1968, when still in rompers (too hot for the dog days, to be sure) I liked to flip through the classified ad pages of the WSJ and marvel at all the preposterous new chains being floated. In case you don’t remember, fast-food chains were the dot-coms of the late 60s.
The sorriest proposition I saw was something called Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips, advertised with a 6-column-inch display ad in the classifieds, showing a portrait of Arthur Treacher himself.
This was the outer limit of weirdness. Here were people proposing to flog English fish and chips to the legions of Arthur Treacher fans. How many Arthur Treacher fans were there? Twelve? A hundred?
Arthur Treacher was scarcely a household name. He was mainly recalled (dimly) as a) Jeeves or some other cinematic butler or valet from the late 1930s; b) a supporting character actor in a couple of Shirley Temple films; or, most commonly, as c) Merv Griffin’s sidekick and announcer from the mid-1960s, when Merv has his afternoon talk show from the Little Theatre in Times Square.
There were no Treacher chippies in existence yet. The first few would open in 1969. You could obtain an Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips franchise for about $10,000, which I thought was awfully steep, given the marginal appeal of the offering.
The joke was on me, of course. Of all those fast-food start-ups in 1968, Arthur Treacher’s was far and away the most successful. It’s still around—unlike Roy Rogers, Gino’s, Junior Hot Shoppes, Burger Chef, and a hundred other chains extant in the 1960s.
I think the key point to AT’s survival is that no one else was putting forth a fried-fish chain under the name of a 1930s actor who made his mark playing Jeeves and subalterns. The idea was so far out there that it had no rivals.
And they didn’t sell hamburgers.
Which brings us back to the Chick-Fil-A people. They have a chicken-sandwich chain with an unwieldly, unspellable, essentially unpronounceable name, and nobody else wants to compete. Chick-Fil-A doesn’t have to sell its weird self to everyone; if only 15% of the population knows that Chick-Fil-A is out there, that’s quite enough.
This partly explains Chick-Fil-A’s odd sense of public relations. Most fast-food chains try to steer clear of controversy, but this one likes to stir things up. The company is openly “Christian Conservative,” and they’re not nicey-nicey and hypocritical about it. They don’t open on Sundays, because of course that’s the Lord’s Day. They lose maybe 20% of their possible revenue by being closed on a weekend, but they undoubtedly make much of it back through loyal customers who like that idea, and make a point of going to Chick-Fil-A more often the other six days of the week. (This is speculation on my part; I haven’t seen the numbers.)
And then there are the media flare-ups whenever someone in the company speaks less-than-approvingly of the Homosexual Agenda or Atheistical Humanism or whatever. Inevitably this triggers public denunciations and proposed boycotts of Chick-Fil-A. But most of the boycotters aren’t regular customers anyway. And with the free publicity, Chick-Fil-A starts getting customers it never had before. Most are curiosity-seekers, some are making a political statement, but some are bound to convert into regular customers. Even if that’s only 5%, it’s 5% they didn’t have before, and Chick-Fil-A brought them in without spending a dime on advertising or new signage. All they had to do was keep being mildly eccentric.