In 2015, in a report co-authored by Foursquare and Business Insider, Chick-Fil-A was heralded as “America’s Most Popular Fast Food Chain”. The previous year, QSR, an analytics firm that tracks consumers’ fast food spending habits, noted that Chick-Fil-A (CFA) outsells mighty KFC and has become the top fried chicken purveyor in the U.S. That’s because in 2014, despite having far fewer outlets than its competitors (1,887 versus 4,370 for KFC and 14,000 McDonalds), CFA outsold them all, posting nearly $5.8 billion in revenue.

Unlike niche businesses that serve a select demographic, Chick-Fil-A and other fast food restaurants’ target audience is basically people who buy takeaway foods. Isn’t that all of us over the age of 16? Not exactly. The fast food playing field is crowded with competitors. Their coveted demographic, the American consumer, is prone to paradigm shifts in taste and one-trick ponies are quickly cast aside in favor of the ‘next big taste sensation’. So how does Chick-Fil-A manage to do it?

Service With a Smile- No Matter What

One should also note that another contender has entered the ring, Panera Bread, which also bypassed KFC on their climb to the literal top of their respective food chain. What these two new industry giants have in common are their efforts to enhance the consumer’s dining experience. While Pizza Hut, for example, also has many times more outlets than Chick-Fil-A, when there is no promotion, according to QSR, these customers do not return. There is no brand loyalty. Chick-Fil-A’s pledge to serve their customers’ needs as well as possible includes food variety and quality, courteous staffers, a clean, restaurant-style dining room with table service, even fresh flowers on every table. These details create an ambiance that transcends the drive-through lines around the block and cars filled with repeat customers day after day. (But not on Sunday- more about that later.)

Among CFA’s secrets of its success is a menu that is just different enough from its competition to make it interesting. The chain is best known for its chicken sandwich, offered in several variations, and usually is purchased with an order of hand-cut waffle fries. While CFA also maintains a breakfast menu and additionally serves milkshakes, cookies, ice cream, salads, and wraps, its food is often described as “better than homemade”, a boast that few, if any, of its competitors, can also make.

By comparison, Kentucky Fried Chicken, long known as a dinner option, has fought back with a selection of “Five Dollar Fill Ups”, which are squarely aimed at the budget-conscious lunch crowd. Not to be outdone by CFA, McDonald’s has also upped its game, serving what Business Insider has termed, “a more upscale fried chicken recipe”. Good luck with that, as Mickey D’s still serves flash-frozen at the factory chicken that then goes straight from the freezer to the fryer. All CFA’s poultry is fresh and hand-breaded in the restaurants before being fried or grilled upon request.

Another huge difference between outlets is the level of customer service. Chick-Fil-A employees receive training on how to remain composed and courteous even when they deal with difficult customers. At other chains, unless a direct complaint is received, surly staffers are seldom called out for their transgressions.

Perhaps the biggest difference between CFA and other fast food chains is their dining room ambiance. Basically, KFC has none. Their entrance allows customers to line up until it is their turn to be served. Dining tables are minimal, it is a harshly-lit, vinyl tile floored environment with little sound baffling. “Eat here if you must, then go!” appears to be the message. At Chick-Fil-A, however, the floors are thickly carpeted, and tables are set with tablecloths and are also adorned by a bud vase featuring fresh-cut florist blooms. While one still must queue up and order, CFA provides table service. Yet another difference in customer service delivery may be seen at McDonald’s, where children may be banished to a play area, while CFA’s staff directly acknowledges them at the table as part of making the whole family feel welcome.

Chick-Fil-A: Never on Sunday

Chick-Fil-A was founded in and flourished in the South, where most states still have blue laws. So their restaurants were shuttered on Sundays. This practice has continued, even though the chain is now nationwide. Why? It is just good business. Historically, the lowest receipts are on Sunday when there is no lunchtime business trade, and many families either eat at home, or with relatives and friends, or at a traditional sit-down restaurant. At chains that are open on Sunday, profits for that day are often offset by the cost of running the outlet including utilities, heating and cooling, and salaries. Therefore, closing on Sunday is a good business practice for Chick-Fil-A which then posts fewer losses against its revenue gains over the rest of the week. Clever, no? At this time, no other fast food chain is benefiting from this little-known, but profitable, strategy.

Five years from now, is it likely that Chick-Fil-A will still be leading the pack? That is hard to project, but for now, CFA is the one to beat and its competitors are lining up to borrow or to reinterpret a page from Chick-Fil-A’s playbook in their attempt to regain market share. The takeaways here, pun intended, is that to stay competitive in the fast food industry, innovation in both menu choices and customer service will always pique consumer interest and win their dollars.

Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Wikimedia