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.

Foods are Something Else!

Let’s talk about hamburgers. Depending on your druthers a carefully-proportioned build of the bread, meat, vegetables and condiments makes for an American classic that – despite trendy variations – hasn’t changed in over a century. But here’s a curiosity for you: Why does every ingredient in a burger also serve an entirely different purpose in the English language? Let’s disassemble, shall we?  Top to bottom, I now give you the eleven essential ingredients.

64-druthers

The bun comes first of course; the capstone to lock all other burger components into place. But a bun is also an element of a hairstyle, is it not? You have that coil of hair on top of the head or at the nape of the neck and you call it a bun.  We even have the man-bun.  Er, not me.  The only bun I identify with is on my burger.

Below the bun we find a very small vegetable garden.  For today’s purposes we include onions, tomatoes, lettuce and pickles.  But did you know, if you know all there is to know about a topic, you “know your onions“?  Did you also know a tomato is old-world slang for a woman or a girl?  Lettuce is today’s language for cash – dollar bills if you will.  And a pickle, well that’s one of those predicaments where you say, “how did I get into this?”

Here’s a favorite ingredient.  I like bacon on my burger.  But not only are we all trying to bring home the bacon (i.e. make a living), but we’re also occasionally trying to save someone’s bacon (i.e. they desperately need our help).

Time for condiments.  In no particular order, squeeze on a little mustard, relish and ketchup.  Now, if I approve of your hamburger I tell you it “cuts the mustard“.  And when you sit down to enjoy your burger I assume you relish the taste.

(Confession timeout: ketchup exists for the one and only purpose of serving as king of the condiments.  Call it ketchup or catsup; all I know is the Chinese claim its invention.  So opportunity knocks; let’s get ketchup out of the bottle and into an alternative use in the English language!)

Now add a slice of cheese.  Think about that ingredient for a moment.  Where else do you use cheese outside of the food world?  Why, in front of the camera of course!  And when you “say cheese” let’s also agree it has nothing to do with the food, but rather the way the word forces your mouth into the requisite smile for the photographer.

We’re almost there.  The beef (patty) that is the essential ingredient of the hamburger is so much more than ground round.  It’s a reference to muscle or brawn (but not to be confused with “beefcake” as this blog is rated “G”).  Having a beef is about a complaint or an argument.  Building something in size or amount means beefing it up.

Let’s not forget about the bottom bun.  If we combine it with the top bun we have the plural, and that of course refers to a certain part of the human anatomy.  Pursue your “buns of steel” if you must; I will settle for my buns on burgers.

That’s all for today’s enlightenment on the vocabulary of the hamburger.  For extra credit check out the spice rack (“salt”, “pepper”, and so many more) or the bakery case (“cookies”, “rolls”), Foods are chomping to be more than just something to eat!

Fallen Arches

We have a McDonald’s in the middle of our small Colorado town.  The restaurant has been expanded over the years, to include double wrap-around drive-thru lanes and a “PlayPlace” for the kids.  At some point in time, demand pushed the hours of operation to 7/24.  So imagine my surprise last Saturday night around 6:30pm, when I passed by and didn’t see a single car – not one! – in either of the drive-thru lanes.  Apparently my town is not “lovin’ it” so much these days.

44 - venerable

The truth is, the fast food times they are a-changin’ and McDonald’s is struggling to move on from its burger-n-fries roots.  It’s hard enough to compete with the Panera’s and Chipotle’s and other “healthy” alternatives.  In this game, McDonald’s is either venerable or outdated – take your pick.

Growing up in California, the go-to fast-food restaurants were McDonald’s, Jack-in-the-Box, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Not many weeks went by where my family didn’t make it to at least one of the three.  In high school, my brother and I worked in a McDonald’s that drew busloads of patrons from the nearby interstate, and hundreds more from the adjacent movie theater.  The lines to the counter would stretch into the seating area; a fury of a demand for fast-food.  But my how times have changed.  A few weeks ago I was shocked to discover another neighborhood McDonald’s had closed down completely.  That’s no one-off; McDonald’s is shutting down hundreds of restaurants across the globe as part of a renewed corporate strategy.

I never thought I’d see the day where I question the long-term future of McDonald’s.  Health magazine recently published a list of “America’s Top Ten Healthiest Fast Food Restaurants” – http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20435301,00.html – and McDonald’s lands comfortably at #8.  Dig deeper however and you’ll find the telling comment: “although McDonald’s made our list, this is still the land of supersizing and giant sodas.”

McDonald’s is trying new approaches to gain market share, and I’m not just talking new menu items (although “garlic fries” are fighting for a spot).  In several of its Texas restaurants, McDonald’s is testing “fresh beef” instead of the “flash frozen” it has used for decades.  McDonald’s also sponsored a nutrition push in schools, but their message of portion control couldn’t overcome their burger-and-fries stereotype, so they cancelled the program.  McDonald’s latest proposed slogan is “The Simpler the Better”, but that’s more about a streamlined menu and faster service.  It’s makeup instead of the face lift they really need.

I have a soft spot for McDonald’s because it was my first formal paycheck.  I worked the grill and dressed the burgers and wore the uniform with pride.  But I can’t tell you the last time I hit a McDonald’s drive-thru, let alone walked into the restaurant.  Even the recent “all-day breakfast” campaign isn’t bringing me back.  Yes, we all still “deserve a break today”, but it may be time to finally dim the lights on the golden arches.