On March 14, 1921, an infant boy was born in Eatonton, Georgia, to Joseph and Lilla James Cathy. They named him Samuel Truett. Few could have predicted that this boy would grow up to be one of the most successful businessmen of all time, and that his influence as a billionaire and philanthropist would have a positive impact upon millions of people around the world.
Samuel Truett Cathy, who went by his middle name, grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta. His father and mother were very poor. Growing up during the Great Depression, Truett and his brothers and sisters had to learn to be content with what they had. A faithful, Godly woman, their mother taught her children to love God, serve others, and honor the Lord’s Day. Every week, the Cathy family attended their local Baptist church and learned to walk in the ways of the Lord.
Looking back, Truett recalled that he did not have many toys and games as a boy. He liked to joke during speaking engagements that, during the days of the Great Depression, all he had to play with was a loose tooth. When the audience would laugh, he would add, “And it wasn’t mine. It was my brother’s!”
Truett and his brother, Ben, were especially close. Together, they started selling bottles of carbonated beverages when Truett was eight years old. Truett and Ben would buy a six-pack of glass Coca-Cola bottles for a quarter. They would then turn this profit around by chipping ice from the ice box, setting up a shop in the front yard of their parents’ home, and selling each bottle of Coke for a nickel, making a profit of five cents every six-pack sold.
In their teen years, Truett and Ben delivered newspapers. In a time when many boys simply threw the newspapers in the general direction of the home’s front door, Truett Cathy went out of his way to serve each of his customers with a smile and an extra touch of care. He said, “I delivered each paper as if I were delivering it to the front door of the governor’s mansion.” His customers never found a newspaper soaked in a puddle, nor did they ever have to dig through bushes to find their newspapers. This attitude of careful service affected all that Truett Cathy did in life.
When World War II broke out, Truett Cathy served his country in the United States Army. Upon the end of the war, he returned home, ready to start his own business. In 1946, Truett and his brother Ben opened a twenty-four-hour restaurant in Hapeville, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. The two young men worked long twelve-hour shifts, alternating with each other so that one of the two brothers was always on hand to make sure that each customer was served with a cheerful smile and excellent service. They named their restaurant “The Dwarf Grill” because of its small size. An automotive manufacturing plant was nearby, and the grill was open twenty-four hours to serve the shift workers who came and went at all hours, especially at night.
The days and nights were long, and the grueling schedule took a toll upon the two young men. When Truett was getting to know Jeannette, the young lady who later became his wife, he sometimes was so exhausted that he would nod off to sleep during their dates!
Truett’s parents had instilled in him a respect for the Lord’s Day. Truett and Ben made the mutual decision that their grill would be closed on Sundays, giving both them and their employees one day out of seven to rest, worship, and spend time with family. It was a practice that he firmly followed for the rest of his life.
In 1949, Truett received the tragic news that two of his brothers, Ben and Horace, were killed in a plane crash near Dalton, Georgia. Ben had been Truett’s friend, advisor, and partner in the business. With tears flowing down his cheeks, he went to the Dwarf Grill on the following Monday morning, knowing that Ben would never be back.
The Dwarf Grill was known for burgers and fries. But in the early 1960s, a local poultry company asked Truett Cathy if he would have any use for a boneless chicken breast. The airline industry bought chicken filets from this poultry company, but they only wanted a certain size. Could Mr. Cathy use the filets that were not wanted?
Truett experimented with the boneless chicken breasts. He remembered watching his mother fry chicken breasts in hot oil and use a heavy lid to keep up the steam pressure in the pan. He bought a pressure cooker and tried to duplicate his mother’s tender, juicy results. Eventually, the original chicken sandwich was born. The secret recipe contained 20 different spices and used peanut oil to achieve a perfect blend of crispiness and tenderness. When Truett entered his new sandwich in a restaurant contest, he did not win first place. He did not win second place. His chicken sandwich was not even mentioned by the judges! However, more of Truett’s sandwiches have been sold than all the other fast-food sandwiches combined!
The business took off when Truett opened his first Chick-fil-A restaurant in Atlanta’s Greenbriar Mall in 1967. The operators of the mall urged him to stay open all seven days of the week. However, he firmly but kindly explained that Chick-fil-A restaurants were closed on Sunday as his policy was to keep the Lord’s Day set apart for his employees to rest and worship with their families.
The corporate purpose of Chick-fil-A, stated on the company website, proclaims boldly: “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.” All who knew Truett Cathy knew that, to him, service was truly “my pleasure.” Advertising his business with Holstein cows holding placards urging folks to “eat mor chikin” was both entertaining and memorable for many.
Truett Cathy always liked to say that he was not in the “chicken business”; he was in the “people business.” From the day that he first put an empty, clean mayonnaise jar on the counter to collect extra money for one of his employees who wanted to go to college, Truett has been interested in helping young people succeed. When the jar did not collect enough, he quietly wrote a check to cover the college tuition of young Eddie White. Since that day, Truett Cathy and his company have continued a generous program of scholarships for their employees. Chick-fil-A has now invested $136 million in scholarships to over 80,000 company employees.
Truett Cathy went to be with the Lord on September 8, 2014. Few knew that, in addition to operating a very successful chain of restaurants, Truett Cathy and his wife, Jeanette, personally fostered numerous children in addition to their own three children, Trudy, Don, and Dan. Truett was a faithful member of First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Georgia. There he taught a Sunday School class for over fifty years. He took pleasure in serving God and serving people, and Truett Cathy is now enjoying the eternal reward of a life well-lived for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Sources and Further Reference:
Cathy, Samuel Truett. Eat Mor Chikin: Inspire More People. Chicago, IL: Looking Glass Books, 2002.