Hacks I Picked Up From Visiting a Chick-fil-a

The stories of Trader Joe’s, Chick-fil-A, Zingerman’s and Union Square Cafe/Shake Shack intrigued me tremendously. All these chains/restaurants are all highly successful. How successful?

  • In 2012, Trader Joe’s sold just over $2,000 of groceries per square foot. Whole Foods? About $1,200. Walmart? $600.
  • Chick-fil-A: The company generates more revenue per restaurant than any other fast-food chain in the US. #1 in the US with $4,091 in average sales per unit, vs, say, McDonald’s @ $2,670, or KFC @ $1,200.
  • Shake Shack : In 2014 they brought in just $2.7 billion out of the $76.9 billion generated by hamburger restaurants in the US overall–they’re having an outsize influence on the burger business, which remains by far America’s largest dining-out category.
  • Zingerman’s, a humble Ann Arbor only deli-shop, has now grown to a community of businesses that includes a speciality food store/deli, a bakehouse, a creamery, a farm, a candy shop, a sit down restaurant, a korean restaurant, a training school, a coffee shop, and more. It is now a $60m+ business, even though it still only serves the community in Ann Arbor.

What I have learned, is all these brands would prioritise on people to deliver unparalleled customer service/hospitality. For instance, in the case of Union Square Cafe, Danny Meyer made a statement to focus on people and … hospitality. In fact, he famously said, “It’s 49 parts performance and 51 parts hospitality. And that’s what you are going to be judged on. That’s how you’re going to get paid. “ He also supported this expectation with the following priorities:

1st: Team

2nd: Customers

3rd: Community

4th: Suppliers

5th: Investors

Similarly at Trader Joe’s, they make sure they hire the right people (Hawaiian shirt wearing, extroverted, chatty …), and hire a lot of them. One of the first things one would notice inside a Trader Joe’s store, is the amount of staff they have. They have ample staff stocking the shelves, and they have staff guiding the check out lines, etc. When you are at a Trader Joe’s, you feel like you are in a culture of … something through the ocean of staff there. The sense of culture (of something) is so evident and somehow … welcoming and positive.

At Chick-fil-A, a chain that consistently ranks first in restaurant customer-service surveys, focuses on things such as supporting team members’ further education, and would ask franchisees at a convention questions like “Do you know the dreams of your team?”

Now here is the thing. Most of these things sound superficial. Many companies also say similar things: hire the best people, treat them well, have career planning conversations. I have lived it and … probably led teams by only paying lip service to the idea of focusing on people.

What I think is happening, is not that companies don’t want to focus on people. The most likely reason why only a few shops/restaurants/whatever seem to really get this right, is because to execute this focus on people is actually very darn hard. It is hard because it’s very unpredictable (humans …), it’s time consuming, it is very difficult to measure, and the decisions to put money and time into the so called people related initiative instead of, say, marketing, are really nerve wrecking. Most companies, or most of us, would eventually move back to focus on the operations/processes/other stuff, because, well, these are a lot more … manageable and predictable.

As I spent time pondering these things, there have been 3 things that I have started to try, and they seem to be helping:

Practice making the tough decisions of diverting your resources into people:

Some of us have the control over money. Most of us don’t. This suggestion here is for those unfortunate souls like me, who don’t have control over money. The one resource that we could practice diverting into people, is time. This is a resource that most of us actually have control over.

Start filling up your calendar with discussions with your teams/peers/humans. Force yourself to choose between an hour of work on writing a strategy, crafting an email, researching, whatever, to a discussion with someone. Make this choice a hard one. If scheduling a conversation with 3 people is easy, make it 6. If it doesn’t pain you to give up an hour to do X versus talking to one of your teammates, you are probably not pushing it enough. It is like everything else in life, if the craving does not exist when you shift your eating habits, or your muscles are not screaming loud enough when you lift weights, you are not pushing hard enough. So again, challenge yourself to make some hard choices between time with your people versus time with everything else you would normally do that are not related to connecting with another human being.

Hopefully the next wall that you will immediately run into, when you divert time to people, is running out of stuff to talk about. I found myself inevitably discussing operational stuff, when I started spending more time talking to people. It’s hard to keep talking to someone, mainly because, it is uncomfortable to go deep.

One trick I have found useful, in order to make this diversion a meaningful new habit, is to force myself talk about … life stuff. Here is one simple thing you could try: Focus the time to understand and then support the other person’s personal life goals. Yes, that touchy feely stuff. What I have learned is it’s a tremendously difficult skill to earn enough trust with another person so they truly open up. It is then another set of skills to be accepted by the other person to allow you to support his or her personal journey. Once you get through these two initial hurdles, then you will be tested, mightily, on your ability to actually impact the minds of another person.

A book I find quite helpful while trying to practice this hack, is “Dare to Lead” by Brené Brown. She offered quite a bit tips to overcome some of the most scary parts of … having conversations. “Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts.” Very true indeed.

Drive the numbers without driving the numbers:

I would call this a level 1.2 hack. This is more about working on understanding and managing people’s emotions and behaviors.

Again, if you want to build a new skill, you have to make it hard. The only way to learn how to bake, is to decide to mess with flour and water, get your fingers stuck with wet dough, witness a dough that refuses to rise, and eat cardboard like pizzas. So this practice is going to be hard because it will not work at all for a while …

Most of us need to drive some results. So instead of achieving a goal by discussing with your team what those numeric results are or by using the traditional carrots and sticks, or by focusing on the strategies and plans and executions around numeric goals, try something completely different. Here is one question/goal that had challenged me thoroughly well: “How do we want “X” to feel?”


  1. You were preparing for a trade show. Your boss asked you to grow your sneakers orders by 10%. You and her worked out exactly how many pairs of new shoes would be needed in each sports category for each buyer to get in order to hit this number. Your target customers were buyers of sportswear retailers. So instead of only working on the plans and numbers and strategies, try instead to focus on two feelings: How would we want to buyers to feel, and how do we want out sales to feel. Let’s say we want the buyers to feel … secured that their bosses won’t scream at them because they have just signed up on an assortment that will make them look good. Let’s say we want our teams to feel … fulfilled and trusted. What strategies can we craft around these feelings, and how do we execute, assess and adjust our actions base on these goals of … feelings.
  2. You want to increase the attach rates of fries at a burger joint. If we were to think of this using emotions, how would we want the customers to feel? A sense of discovery? Satisfaction? A sense of pride because they felt they just picked the best hidden secret in the store? How would we want our team to feel? The pride from satisfying someone else’s desire to enjoy a great meal? The trust when someone accepts their suggestions?
  3. You were hosting an open day for prospective parents. Instead of figuring out the number of attendees, or the money you wanted to raise, how about the feelings you wanted to create during the open day for both the attendees and the team?

I know. I am fully aware of how kooky this sounds. It is so difficult to figure out what feelings we want. It is also very difficult to know that these feelings would actually generate the results that would get my boss off my back. What I have learned is the art and science behind figuring what emotions are the result of the right behaviours that would drive the right results. If cross selling fries is the result, the behaviour is likely a genuine, relatable and timely presentation of the offer to that particular individual in front of the teammate, and the related emotions from the customers would be the feeling of care (Hey that guy cares about me) and the feeling of pride (hey that guy chooses what I am suggesting). Hopefully, the strategies and actions will be developed base on these. More specifically, we would be training the teammate to find ways to probe with the intention to relate, or to find ways to express themselves genuinely, or to display care. I have an example to hopefully bring this home.

A friend of mine would always go to a Chick-fil-A whenever he gets to go home to the States. One time, his wife and him were at the counter. They were at this point of the journey, which I think most of us could relate to, where they were still deciding, and hence they chose not to step too close to the counter. I tend to do this too because I don’t want the staff to think they need to engage us yet. Therefore they stood a few steps back, heads tilted up, and looked at the menu. The staff apparently noticed. He then went on to say, “Hey guys, I am not here to rush you. Come on up front and take a better look at the menu. I will be ready whenever you are ready.” My friend felt assured that the guy noticed them, and spent time to think about what my friend and his wife might be feeling. He also expressed his intentions clearly. Of course, his intentions were also observant and caring.

Allow criticism to jump start your humility:

This one is simple to understand, but will take one’s heart and soul to get comfortable with. There are basically three simple steps. I realised when I committed myself to these three steps, I slowly stumbled upon becoming a more self aware and humble person. At least I think I am.

First, proclaim this to your teams and peers: I need your criticisms on my actions. Suggestions on how to improve will be much appreciated too.

Second, proclaim this immediately afterwards: I am working on my listening, therefore I will keep my mouth shut when you criticise me.

Third, proclaim this after the last one: I am going to commit changes. I will fail, and so please apply these points again and often.

It is like declaring to your kids that you will stop checking your phone at the dinner table. When you make it public, and invite others to join, studies and studies have shown that this is one of the best ways to learn a new habit or drop a bad behaviour. Also it’s especially powerful, when you are the manager, because the guilt and shame of not following through will nag you enough. Furthermore, for people like you, who are willing to spend all the time to get through to this point of the article, are probably genuine and brave enough to give a shxt about your own credibility.

Therefore the only challenge left, is to take a few deep breaths, and then go tell it on the mountain.

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