Chick-fil-A has been run by the Cathy family since the restaurant chain's founding in 1946; as of 2021 it was being led by the third generation of the Cathy family.
The chain's origin can be traced to the Dwarf Grill (now the Dwarf House), a restaurant opened by S. Truett Cathy, the chain's former chairman and CEO, in Hapeville, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, in 1946, and is near the location of the Ford Motor Company Atlanta Assembly Plant, for many years a source of many of the restaurant's patrons but later demolished.
Truett Cathy opened his first restaurant in 1946, The Dwarf Grill – later renamed the Dwarf House – in Hapeville, Georgia, and developed the pressure-cooked chicken breast sandwich there. At the original Chick-fil-A Dwarf Grill, in addition to the full-size entrances, there is also an extra small-sized front door.
In 1961, after 15 years in the fast-food business, Cathy found a pressure-fryer that could cook the chicken sandwich in the same time it took to cook a hamburger. Following this discovery, he registered the name Chick-fil-A, Inc. The company's trademarked slogan, "We Didn't Invent the Chicken, Just the Chicken Sandwich," refers to their flagship menu item, the Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich. Though Chick-Fil-A was the first national chain to make a fast, fried chicken sandwich its flagship item, it has been shown that Cathy's claim to have "invented the chicken sandwich" is false.
From 1964 to 1967, the sandwich was licensed to over fifty eateries, including Waffle House and the concession stands of the new Houston Astrodome. The Chick-Fil-A sandwich was withdrawn from sale at other restaurants when the first standalone location opened in 1967, in the food court of the Greenbriar Mall in Atlanta.
Opened in 1986, Truett's original, full-service restaurants offer a substantial menu and provide customers a choice of table service, walk-up counter service or a drive-thru window. There are currently five of the original eleven Chick-fil-A Dwarf House restaurants still operating in the metro Atlanta area, including Duluth, Riverdale, Jonesboro, Forest Park and Fayetteville.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, the chain expanded by opening new locations in suburban malls' food courts. The first freestanding location was opened April 16, 1986, on North Druid Hills Road in Atlanta, Georgia, and the company began to focus more on stand-alone units rather than food courts. Although it has expanded outward from its original geographic base, most new restaurants are located in Southern US suburban areas.
In September 1994, Chick-fil-A opened its first location outside of the United States inside a student center food court at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. This location did not perform very well and was closed within two or three years. The company opened an outlet at the Calgary International Airport in Alberta in May 2014, and closed it in 2019.
"Eat Mor Chikin" is the chain's most prominent advertising slogan, created by The Richards Group in 1995. The slogan is often seen in advertisements, featuring Holstein dairy cows that are often seen wearing (or holding) signs that (usually) read "Eat Mor Chikin" in capital letters. The ad campaign was temporarily halted on January 1, 2004, during a mad cow disease scare, so as not to make the chain seem insensitive or appear to be taking advantage of the scare to increase its sales. Two months later, the cows were put up again. The cows replaced the chain's old mascot, Doodles, an anthropomorphized chicken that still appears as the C on the logo.
In 1996, the first Truett's Grill was opened in Morrow, Georgia. The second location opened in 2003 in McDonough, Georgia, and a third location opened in 2006 in Griffin, Georgia. Similar to the Chick-fil-A Dwarf Houses, these independently owned restaurants offer traditional, sit-down dining and expanded menu selections in a diner-themed restaurant. In 2017, Chick-fil-A demolished several Dwarf House locations to replace them with Truett's Grill locations.
In August 1996, Chick-fil-A opened its first location outside of North America by building a restaurant in Durban, South Africa. A second location was opened in Johannesburg in November 1997. Neither was profitable, and they were closed in 2001.
In 2008, Chick-fil-A was among the first fast-food restaurants to become completely free of trans fats.
In 2011, food blogger and activist Vani Hari noted that Chick-fil-A sandwiches contained nearly 100 ingredients, including peanut oil preserved with tert-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), made from butane. In October 2012, Chick-fil-A invited Hari to meet with company executives at its headquarters. In December 2013, Chick-fil-A said that it was removing high-fructose corn syrup and artificial dyes, and was testing a new peanut oil . Chick-fil-A, like other companies, does not publicly announce such changes unless already in the news, because it focuses attention on these ingredients.
A company spokesperson said in 2012, "The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our Restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect –regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender."
In June and July 2012, Chick-fil-A's chief operating officer Dan T. Cathy made several public statements about same-sex marriage, saying that those who "have the audacity to define what marriage is about" were "inviting God's judgment on our nation". Several prominent politicians expressed disapproval. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Chicago Alderman Proco "Joe" Moreno said they hoped to block franchise expansion into their areas.
The proposed bans drew criticism from liberal pundits, legal experts, and the American Civil Liberties Union. The Jim Henson Company, which had a Pajanimals kids' meal toy licensing arrangement with Chick-fil-A, said it would cease its business relationship, and donate the payment to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Chick-fil-A stopped distributing the toys, claiming that unrelated safety concerns had arisen prior to the controversy. Chick-fil-A released a statement on July 31, 2012, saying, "We are a restaurant company focused on food, service, and hospitality; our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena."
Truett Cathy visited Hawaii; at the age of 92 he opened Truett's Luau in Fayetteville Georgia in 2013. The menu includes island favorites with a southern US spin. The restaurant offers sit-down, counter and drive-thru service.
In February 2014, Chick-fil-A announced plans to serve chicken raised without antibiotics in its restaurants nationwide within five years, the first fast-food restaurant to make this commitment. This was implemented by May 2019.
A 2011 letter to Vermont artist Bo Muller-Moore who screen prints T-shirts reading: "Eat More Kale" demanded that he cease printing the shirts and turn over his website. The incident drew criticism from Vermont governor Peter Shumlin, and created backlash against what he termed Chick-fil-A's "corporate bullying". On December 11, 2014, Bo Muller-Moore announced that the U.S. Patent Office granted his application to trademark his "Eat More Kale" phrase. A formal announcement of his victory took place on December 12, 2014, with Shumlin and other supporters on the Statehouse steps. His public fight drew regional and national attention, the support of Shumlin, and a team of pro-bono law students from the University of New Hampshire legal clinic.
In October 2015, the company opened its largest restaurant, a three-story 5,000 square feet (460 m ) restaurant in Manhattan.
After 22 years with The Richards Group, Chick-fil-A switched to McCann New York in 2016. Along with the cows, ads included famous people in history in a campaign called "Chicken for Breakfast. It's not as crazy as you think."
Chick-fil-A grossed an average of $4.8 million per restaurant in 2016, despite opening only 6 days a week, the highest sales of all fast-food restaurants in the United States. (Whataburger was second with $2.7 million per restaurant average).
On December 17, 2017, Chick-fil-A broke their tradition and opened on a Sunday to prepare meals for passengers left stranded during a power outage at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and on January 13, 2019, a Chick-fil-A franchise in Mobile, Alabama, opened on Sunday to honor a birthday wish of a 14-year-old boy with cerebral palsy and autism.
In April 2018, Chick-fil-A reportedly continued to donate to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which opposes gay marriage. In a November 18, 2019, interview, Chick-fil-A president Tim Tassopoulos said the company would stop donating to The Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
In July 2018, Chick-fil-A announced it would be opening its first location in Hawaii in Kahului in early 2022, with additional locations in Honolulu and Kapoleo to follow. The first Puerto Rican location opened on March 3, 2022, in Bayamón.
In 2019, Chick-fil-A reported $11.3 billion in sales in the United States, behind only McDonald's with $40.4 billion in sales that year.
To compete with Chick-fil-A, fried chicken chain Popeyes, followed by others, introduced a fried chicken sandwich in 2019, starting the Chicken Sandwich Wars.
In February 2019, Chick-fil-A opened a store on a 12-month pilot scheme in Aviemore, Scotland. The store was closed in January 2020 amidst protest and controversy from locals and customers regarding the chain's former donations to charities supporting anti-LGBT rights causes. Chick-Fil-A said that they had always planned a short-term stay at the location.
Chick-fil-A opened a restaurant in Toronto, Ontario, on September 6, 2019, in the Yonge and Bloor Street area. There were protests criticizing the company's violation of animal rights and "history of supporting anti-LGBTQ causes". Chick-fil-A announced that it would open two other locations in Toronto during 2019, and 12 additional stores in the Greater Toronto Area over the subsequent five years. The chain's second Toronto location opened at the Yorkdale Shopping Centre in January 2020.
A Chick-fil-A operated in Edinburgh during Spring 2018. On October 10, 2019, Chick-fil-A returned to Europe, with the opening of a store at The Oracle shopping centre in Reading, UK. The store closed in March 2020 after The Oracle opted not to continue the lease of the location beyond the six-month pilot period in the face of continued protests over the chain's anti-LGBTQ stance.
Later the company changed some policies, appointing its first head of diversity, in 2020, and focused its charitable activities on education and hunger alleviation rather than opponents of same-sex marriage. In September 2023 the company said that it planned to open five restaurants in the UK from early 2025, investing over $100m over the following ten years in the UK. The chain said that it would apply its charitable policies, including a $25,000 donation to a local organisation on opening a Chick-fil-A restaurant and donation of surplus food to local charitable causes, to its UK branches too.
The company expanded to other areas of Ontario in 2021, opening standalone locations with drive-through restaurants in Kitchener in August, and Windsor in October.
Less than a year after Moreno's comments, Chick-fil-A opened its first restaurant in downtown Chicago. In 2022, ten years after Menino's comments, Chick-fil-A opened its first store in Boston, a 5,280-square-foot restaurant on Boylston Street. At the time of the opening, there were 15 other Chick-fil-A restaurants operating in the greater Boston area.
In October 2022, the company trialed expansion of the program to include its salad dressings in the Cincinnati metropolitan area and in parts of Tennessee, and expanded nationwide in spring 2023.
In the spring of 2020, Chick-fil-A test-trialed the sale of two of their dipping sauces at some supermarkets in Florida, with all profits earmarked for a scholarship fund for company's store level employees. The trial was considered successful, and distribution was expanded nationwide by 2021. Two more sauces were added in 2023.
On February 13, 2023, they began offering their first non-meat sandwich, a breaded cauliflower sandwich.
In May 2023, Chick-fil-A closed its first stand-alone restaurant, in Greenbriar Mall, Atlanta, without stating a reason.