Chick-fil-A and the Personal Touch of Jesus Chicken in the Age of Coronavirus
Going through a drive-thru is almost automatic for most folks.
Pull up, order, pull up, pay, get food, go about your way. You are off quickly with food while the restaurant moves on to the next car and customer in the line. A habit so ingrained you could almost do it on muscle memory alone. Far too many folks looking at their phones while in the line try to do exactly that till a blast of horn brings their attention back.
And so it goes. Day after day. Hour after hour. Lather, rinse, repeat.
So automatic it took me a bit to figure out what was different about the new local Chick-fil-A drive thru. The line was usually busy, the employees were just as friendly moving about taking the orders. Chick-fil-A has been using real people in the queues for some time now, finding it to be both better for the customer service the brand is famous for and also efficiency in getting things right. Even still, it was right as I was handed my food from a bin by a very nice person with a black-and-white cow-themed mask that it finally hit me what was different.
There was no drive thru window. At all.
Instead, there was a doorway that looked to be multifunctional that the employees were busily coming and going through while working the covered “delivery zone” down one whole side of the building. Almost all of it covered, with fans and heaters to help with the various elements for the employees.
This particular Chick-fil-A opened April 30th, right in the middle of all the lockdowns and restrictions. Whereas another fast food-type place nearby is fully finished but unopened, the sign changed from “Opening May” to “See you this summer”, Chick-fil-A didn’t miss a beat. Some cones in the parking lot to separate the curbside pickup with the drive-thru lanes, and off they went.
The new design is the continuation and display of commitment to the customer service the chain has been riding to massive success. Controversies have come and gone for the chain but not made a dent in the popularity. Comments by the CEO and some of the charitable giving by the corporation brought protests by some LGBT activists, and the companies announcement to no longer give to some of those objected-to groups got a few online folks in a twist that Chick-fil-A was bowing to pressure. Most folks just didn’t care one way or the other as long as they got their chicken and sweet tea in a timely manner.
Those protesters took to calling Chick-fil-A “Jesus Chicken,” meaning it to be derogatory. Some of Chick-fil-A’s diehards thought that suited them just fine, and happily took the label, along with a variation borrowing that other famous chicken place’s initials and dubbing it “JFC”. All the while, profits and business continued to make Chick-fil-A one of the most profitable fast food restaurants in America.
That human touch and customer service is inarguably one of the biggest factors for that success. While the innovator and still king of drive thru, McDonalds, is pushing ever harder for more AI and tech driven ways to improve their drive thru service, Chick-fil-A is going the other way. Mickey D’s is spending millions working on algorithms, voice recognition, and even AI systems to remember previous orders and predict what you will be ordering this time. No word yet on if there is AI in the works to improve the maintenance cycles of the ever-broken ice cream machine.
Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A has a revolutionary idea of how to learn what a customer wants in their order: they ask. Nicely.
There is plenty of tech involved with Chick-fil-A’s method: receipts are printed off belt-mounted printers by an employee walking the car line, everyone has a handheld device to keep things straight, curbside can all be done right off the restaurants app. But it’s the friendly, uniformly courteous service that is really the star. It’s obvious to anyone who goes to one: there is something in Chick-fil-A’s corporate culture that trickles down to each of these franchisees. They’ve figured out that the fast food business, and the chicken business is about what all business is about, and adjusted accordingly: people.
That customer service is all the more obvious in the current Coronavirus situation. The gloves and masks were different, the food comes in a bin held out for you to reach in and get the order yourself to limit touching. The dining room part of Chick-fil-A, like everywhere else currently, is closed. In the case of this brand new one, no customer has even been in it yet. But what hasn’t changed is the double line of cars wrapped around the entire plot of land Chick-fil-A is situated on waiting to talk to those folks in the line and order their food.
It’s the little things that make a difference. Attention to detail, the sergeant will yell at the military trainees, or a teacher will implore their students, or a parent trying to get a child to notice the mess needing cleaned up. Chick-fil-A gets the details right, and in something as simple as removing the drive-thru window — the very symbol of fast food in America for the last 60-odd years — they have once again shown they know the most important detail isn’t just the chicken, or the sweet tea, or the luscious Polynesian sauce that is just perfect on the nuggets.
It’s getting the people right, both their own employees and the customers that are their guest.
Coronavirus, or come what may, be darned.