Poultry Par Excellence

Among its endless and varied topics, Wikipedia includes a list of “notable chicken restaurants” (just about all of them U.S.-based). In the fast-food subcategory alone, you find over 75 fowl food-stops. I recognized about one in ten as I scanned the list, including Bojangles’, Bush’s, Church’s, El Pollo Loco, KFC, Popeye’s, Raising Cane’s, Wild Wings, and Zaxby’s. That’s a lot of drive-thru chicken. Yet put ’em all in the back seat, because I side with those clever Holstein dairy cows, begging me to “Eat Mor Chikin”.  And I do eat more – at Chick-fil-A.

As the kids morphed from teenagers to adults, fast food pretty much disappeared from our eating-out options.  Starbucks aside (because coffee is the elixir of life), we stopped navigating the circuitous drive-thru’s of McDonald’s and the like.  Our palates demanded better and healthier.  More appealing sit-down options beckoned on every street corner.  But Chick-fil-A stubbornly persisted in the mix, as if waving a banner with the words, “Exception To The Rule”.

Dwarf House – Hapeville, GA

No matter how you label it, there’s a lot to like about Chick-fil-A.  For one, it’s the great American success story.  Its origins trace back to founder S. Truett Cathy, and a 1960’s-era restaurant near Atlanta called Dwarf House.  Its popularity swelled through twenty years of growth in shopping mall food courts. Its first free-standing restaurant opened in 1986.  Today, you’ll find more than 2,400 Chick-fil-A’s scattered across the continent, including a prominent three-story location in mid-town Manhattan, and several in Toronto, Canada.

It’s all about the food, of course.  Chick-fil-A’s most-ordered entree – the classic chicken sandwich (breaded, with pickles and a butter-toasted bun) – is a recipe unchanged since its inception fifty years ago.  The signature waffle fries accompanying the entrees are the most popular item on the entire menu.  And Chick-fil-A’s lemonade and milkshakes have a devoted following all by themselves.  Some patrons cruise the drive-thru for nothing but the drinks.

The Chick-fil-A’ “classic”

There’s more to like about Chick-fil-A.  Their brand of customer service is exceptional.  Chick-fil-A is the only restaurant I know where you’ll hear the words “my pleasure” in exchange for your “thank you”.  Between your order, payment, and the window itself, you’ll probably get “my pleasure'” three times in a single drive-thru.  That kind of courtesy never gets old.

American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI)

How about the numbers?  Chick-fil-A is the third-biggest U.S. restaurant chain ranked by sales (behind only Starbucks and McDonald’s).  Their sales have quintupled in the last ten years, to over $10.2 billion.  Chick-fil-A’s market share among fast-food chicken restaurants hovers around 33%.  Their nearest competitor – KFC – is a distant 15.3%.

Here’s one more reason to love Chick-fil-A: they’re closed on Sundays (as well as Thanksgiving and Christmas).  In the company’s own words, “Our decision to close on Sunday was our way of honoring God and of directing our attention to things that mattered more than our business.”  No matter the faith angle, you have to respect a restaurant giving its entire workforce the day off once a week.  Not to mention, a closed Chick-fil-A just makes the heart grow fonder.

A recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) profile on Chick-fil-A shows they don’t mess with success.  McDonald’s regularly tests its patrons with trendy offerings (“Bacon Smokehouse Burger”).  Burger King reinvents itself with its upcoming “Impossible” (veggie) Whopper.  Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A maintains a little-changed menu of what’s been selling for decades: responsibly sourced, domestically produced, no-filler-no-preservative chicken.

At the conclusion of the WSJ article, I found one hundred reader comments about Chick-fil-A.  I scanned half of them, and every last one was positive.  That’s a first for me.  In today’s cynical world, 100% positive feedback may be the most telling statistic of all.

Final factoid.  For all my allegiance to Chick-fil-A, I must admit I didn’t know the origin of the name – until now.  Go figure, it’s just a mash-up of “chicken fillet”.  And the “-A”?  “Grade A”, a subtle nod to the quality of the Chick-fil-A product.  No wonder those cows push you to lay off beef.  They’re offering chicken par excellence instead.

Some content sourced from the official website of Chick-fil-A.

Sham Sandwich

Back in my high-school burger-flipping days at McDonald’s, I worked countless shifts at the “quarter-pounder” grill, which involved a whole lot of beef. McDonald’s standard hamburger was a little brown disc – barely a tenth of a pound – and you could grill fifty at once like a big array of domino dots. The quarter-pounder, on the other hand, was a real burger. Those big boys required higher temperatures and more real estate; hence their own grill. Even the ever-popular Big Mac – a double-decker of the smaller ones – couldn’t tip the scales like the quarter-pounder patty. But no matter the weight, at least we were cooking up beef (and hooking an occasional Filet-O-Fish). On today’s fast-food menus, beef is getting a little scarcer; nudged aside by… well, the “impossible”.

McDonald’s Quarter-Pounder

“Veggie” burgers have been around in one form or another for the past forty years – mostly a quiet nondescript option at the bottom of the menu. Lately however, they’re starting to crowd the stage alongside beef. Maybe they’re just the same ol’ veggie burger, and today’s consumer is more tolerant because he/she is more health-conscious. But that can’t be true, can it, or I wouldn’t bother covering this topic today. Hey, when the New York Times makes a headline out of Burger King’s latest offering, it’s hard not to notice.

Impossible Foods (IF) is a small but rapidly-growing “burger” maker headquartered in Redwood City, CA. IF’s production takes place in a single factory across the bay in Oakland. After their latest contract, IF executives may be looking for more factory locations. They just signed a deal to add their product to the home of the Whopper. As you should figure by now, the IF burger is anything but meat. Not a “moo” to be heard anywhere in the building.

The Impossible

If we were only talking about Burger King – and only a handful of pilot stores in Missouri and Illinois at that – the “Impossible Whopper” wouldn’t be such a big deal. But here’s what makes me pause. “The Impossible” is also about to appear on every Red Robin restaurant menu in the U.S. (over 500 locations). White Castle already sells an Impossible Slider in all of its restaurants (380). And Carl’s Jr – albeit with a competitor of IF – offers a veggie burger in 1,000 of its restaurants. Every one of these chains prides itself on beef burgers. Yet if the Burger King pilot is a success, we’ll see the Impossible Whopper in over 7,200 locations. What the heck is going on?

A reasonable alternative, and demand from a health/environment-conscious consumer – that’s what’s going on. We finally have a tasty veggie-competitor to the all-beef patty. The Impossible (also a great country song by Joe Nichols, by the way), has the endorsement of not only fast-food chains and the media, but food critics as well. Apparently, one cannot distinguish said imposter from beef. You don’t need so much as a sprig of lettuce on this one, because you’re already getting plenty of “vegetable”.

I could list the ingredients, technology, and environmental benefits of the Impossible, but it’s more fun to watch the company’s informational video. See if you aren’t inspired after spending a couple of minutes with Impossible Foods:

IF puts a lot of science into “beef taste”, and the numbers don’t lie (see below). Less cholesterol and saturated fat. Far fewer calories. And, consuming one Impossible instead of one Whopper saves the equivalent of a ten-minute shower in water. It also saves eighteen combustion-engine miles of greenhouse gases. Look at you, eating fast food with an empathetic nod to Mother Earth.

The Impossible

To play devil’s advocate – despite the healthier ingredients and gentler impact on the environment – the success (or demise) of the Impossible will surely come down to taste. On that topic, I am not yet an expert. In fact, I am a skeptic. On one regrettable visit to Red Robin, I opted for their salmon burger over beef, thinking I was doing my body (and Earth) a favor. Mistake. Is it any wonder Red Robin no longer offers that sandwich?

I can’t use salmon burgers as an excuse not to try the Impossible. We have a couple of Red Robins in the neighborhood, and a local organic foods cafe already has one on the menu. No reason I can’t go down and give it a go. Also, “ground Impossible” will appear in grocery stores later this year (alongside the meats?), so I can even make my own patties. In other words, watch out McDonald’s. This veggie burger is no impossible dream.
Some content sourced from the New York Times article, “Behold the Beefless ‘Impossible Whopper’, and the Impossible Foods website.