The Secret Sauce to Any Good Restaurant
Steve Robinson, author of "Covert Cows," a book about his 30+ year career working as the chief marketing officer for Chick-fil-A, talks about the secret sauce of the company's success-the people who work there. Robinson explains how he has learned to be a good husband and father.
About the Guest
Steve Robinson, author of “Covert Cows,” a book about his 30+ year career working as the chief marketing officer for Chick-fil-A, talks about the secret sauce of the company’s success – the people who work there. Robinson explains how he has learned to a good husband and father.
The Secret Sauce to Any Good Restaurant
Bob: For many Christians working in a corporate environment, there are ongoing temptations to compromise your faith. In fact, sometimes, it feels like it’s almost required. For Steve Robison, working in the corporate office at Chick-fil-A® is something completely different.
Steve: I never thought I’d have a career where I could have this healthy balance and tension between being a marketing professional and being a believer, where I had the opportunity to express my faith—not so much in what I said as in what I did—how I made decisions, what I valued, how I treated people. Quite frankly, Truett was my role model.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, July 24th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson, and I'm Bob Lepine.
What makes Chick-fil-A different as a company is less about the sandwiches, and the fries, and the peach milkshakes, and more about the kind of culture Chick-fil-A has built. We’ll hear more about that today from Steve Robinson. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us.
Bob: I think everybody’s got a Chick-fil-A story.
Ann: Yes, I agree.
Bob: Here’s my favorite Chick-fil-A story.
Dave: Oh, boy, here we go.
Bob: I was talking to an older operator of a Chick-fil-A store in San Diego, CA. I said, “What’s your story?” He said, “I was brought in because this store needed a turnaround. Things were not doing well. I was trained to do turnarounds, so they brought me in to do a turnaround in San Diego.”
I looked at him and said, “OK. You could not change the location where you were, right?” No, couldn’t change that. “You couldn’t change the menu.” No. “You couldn’t change the price of anything.” No. I said, “You couldn’t change the marketing very much.” He said, “We have some influence over our local marketing, but I know what you’re saying.” I said, “How do you do a turnaround if you can’t change the location, the price, and the menu?” He said, “It’s all about the people.”
The next time I went into a Chick-fil-A—it is all about the people. It’s about the chicken—it’s great food. But the secret sauce—I think I’m right; we’ll ask the former vice president of marketing for Chick-fil-A if I’m right—I think it’s the people.
Dave: I know it’s the people. Again, I’m just a customer. I’ve been to many Chick-fil-A’s. Everyone has remarkably hit me. I feel loved.
Ann: Me, too! You walk—
Dave: The chicken is unbelievable, but I walk out feeling loved.
Ann: You walk in. You think, “What is happening here? These people are the nicest people I’ve ever encountered.” Especially for that day. It really is an experience that no one wants to miss.
Bob: Steve Robinson is joining us today on FamilyLife Today. Steve, welcome back.
Dave: It’s all because of you, right, Steve?
Steve: No. I’m just part of those people.
Bob: For 34 years, you were a big part of those people. You gave leadership to the marketing at Chick-fil-A. People hear “marketing,” and they think, “Oh, you were responsible for billboards with cows on them.”
Ann: The cows!
Bob: You were.
Steve: Part of it.
Bob: I remember talking to you, and you were saying that how the kitchen was organized was part of the marketing. I went, “What?”
Bob: “Marketing” was a big term for what Chick-fil-A was all about. It’s about what the brand is all about.
Steve: Yes. That’s right, Bob. The evolution of marketing at Chick-fil-A literally became brand management. It was—in their mind, when they recruited me; and even in my mind when I came—it was about the traditional marketing.
Bob: Advertising, promotion—
Steve: Advertising, promotion, pricing, packaging. We did all that, and hopefully learned how to do it pretty good over time. Particularly, as my team and I started to better understand the uniqueness of the operator model, which you just alluded to, we realized that we not only had great marketing agents—on-the-ground marketing agents in the operators—we had great leaders who were capable to create guest experiences that no one else in the fast food industry could create.
It led not only to menu innovations—menu innovation did report and does report into the marketing group—and you ask why. That’s where the voice of customer research resides. If you’re going to innovate the menu, then you’ve got to innovate kitchen design and equipment to keep it fast, safe, and on schedule.
So that’s how all that ended up in there. Over time, marketing came to impact apparel design, store design, obviously multi-media platforms, sports marketing, event activation, grand openings.
Bob: All that you’ve described is critical to the success of the brand.
Steve: That’s correct.
Bob: Am I right, though, that people are tops?
Steve: People are the secret sauce. If not, just people [Inaudible]. I try to make it clear in the book. It’s more about the people in the restaurants, and it starts and stops with the operators who run those restaurants.
Bob: The guy said, “I was able to pull off a turnaround.” I said, “How did you do it?” He said, “I hired smiling people who engaged with customers and made them feel like Ann; they felt loved when they came.”
Steve: San Diego is a great market today.
Ann: You also gave a lot of free food away.
Steve: Oh, yes.
Ann: How did you decide to do that? That doesn’t seem to make sense.
Steve: It actually relates back one, to Truett, and two, to my experience about losing two million dollars on a promotion. In 1982 we did a chain-wide promotion using the traditional fast food formula of direct mail, and free standing inserts with coupons. The thing blew up. It exceeded the budge by two million dollars. For a 100-million-dollar business, that’s a big deal.
It was a big deal to Truett although he never said anything to me. Jimmy Collins is the one—I wanted to apologize—and Jimmy said, “Don’t worry about it. We just invested two million dollars in your education. You’re never going to make that mistake again.”
Ann: Tell us exactly what happened.
Steve: Here’s what happened. I decided, we’re never going to do coupons again. Well, if you’re not going to do coupons, how are you going to get trial? Give it away. So, you sample it, and use “be our guest” cards, and you get on the marketplace, and you deliver free food to offices, and car dealerships, and hospitals, and fire stations, and police stations.
The average Chick-fil-A operator probably gives away roughly two per cent of their annual sales in just free food.
Bob: Chick-fil-A is known—when there’s rescue or relief efforts needed—to take food to those people.
Steve: Yes. By the way, none of that comes as a directive from the home office. Home office doesn’t have to do anything. The operators do that on their own initiative.
Ann: I didn’t know that.
Steve: That bill’s not being sent to Atlanta and the home office. They’re doing that because they live in those communities. They are committed to those communities. They’re not looking over their shoulder for the next store somewhere. That is their home. When something bad happens in their hometown, they’re on it.
Bob: It’s almost like they look at their community and see themselves as pastors, in a sense over the people in that community?
Steve: They may. I think a lot of them feel that way about their team members.
Dave: I was thinking the same thing, Bob. They’re pastoring an area, and the reason—think about this—you say it in your book. You’re not selling chicken and growing an enterprise because of cow billboards.
Dave: Or great chicken. It really is people. Here’s the question. I hear this in the church world sometimes. I hear it in businesses. “There aren’t great people out there like that. You can’t find them anymore like you used to.” Yet you can. How do you find them?
Steve: We’re just as diligent as the operators are on recruiting, and vetting, and looking for talent that not only fits the skill need but the competency around character and values, too. We find them because the operators, at the end of the day, realize that the face of their brand in their community, and the face of their reputation in the community, is a reflection of the team members they recruit, and train, and keep.
You hire culture and you catch culture. You can’t catch culture if you have a lot of turnover. Truett realized that about the home office, and because of the operator model, we enjoy the same benefit at the store level. The average team member turnover at a Chick-fil-A restaurant is about a third of the industry average. Their leadership teams turn over very little, less than ten percent a year. Turnover among operators themselves is less than three percent a year.
You can not only catch culture with those kind of timelines, but more importantly, you have sufficient time to invest in people, develop their skills, develop their understanding of the business, develop why we’re remarkable as who we are and who we want to be, and why we exist. They buy into it.
At the end of the day, everybody has a story, and how can you serve the person that walks in the door that day to make their story better. That’s the heart and soul of Chick-fil-A.
Dave: Here’s my question. You said earlier that Truett wanted you to never leave. You never left. Why?
Steve: A lot of reasons. Obviously, I identified the 1982 process of writing the corporate purpose helped give me a foundation that I made the right decision. Secondly, he was incredibly generous with empowering and giving me and my team freedom. I’d had enough experience with that at Six Flags and Texas Instruments to realize that it’s hard to build a really enduring brand—and that’s what I like to describe it, an enduring brand—when you’re constantly focused on quarterly results and/or when you have constant turnover in leadership.
What gets sacrificed? Culture, at the top of the list, and then any commitment to some sort of strategic long-term horizon where you want to take the brand. They both get lost.
I saw in Chick-fil-A an opportunity for that to not go away—to build, literally brick by brick—keep building on the brick. Another analogy I like to use—layer by layer of the onion—build the brand, layer by layer, and what’s important to you is different than what’s important to Ann or what’s important to Bob. What are the layers that people value? What the Chick-fil-A journey allowed me and my team to do was not just focus on the sandwich and the food, but other layers that made the Chick-fil-A experience valuable to them and made their day, their story richer.
Ann: I look at my grandkids, who dress up as cows, go into Chick-fil-A to get their free food—
Bob: Not every day.
Ann: —not every day.
Bob: Just a cow appreciation day.
Dave: They want to do it every day.
Ann: There’s a part of me that thinks, “I wonder if they think a cow is a chicken.” [Laughter] It doesn’t even make sense. How did you come up with that, you and your team?
Steve: Again, my team also included a very unique ad agency out in Dallas, TX, called The Richards Group, founded by Stan Richards. We were looking for a great agency, a great creative agency in the mid-90’s and got it down to three finalists, and they’re the ones we selected. We selected them primarily because they had a great creative history.
They were the ones that came up with the idea of three-dimensional billboards. And they had two or three really funny concepts that we used. But about nine months into their relationship with us, they shipped us—we weren’t having big fancy creative meetings—they just sent us six or seven new billboard ideas. Our advertising manager had them on my desk one day. When I walked in, they were face down, and I start flipping them over, left to right.
Of course, I get to the last one. It’s these two cows paying to eat more chicken. [Laughter] I didn’t just giggle; I roared. I absolutely roared. This pot shot at beef in an unassuming, whimsical way, breakthrough use of the medium because up to that point, billboards were just used for “Turn here. Here’s what we’re selling. Here’s the price.” Quite frankly, most of the industry is still doing the same thing.
We ran that board in Atlanta, and it was the summer of the Olympics in Atlanta. Huge hit. Huge buzz in the city. People are calling the office, talking to the operators about it. Quite frankly, in our advertising tracking in Atlanta, it was the only thing that was even registering. Other boards that we had up that showed food and location—nothing.
We ran that board in our top 20 markets that fall. We knew it was a hit when we had two cows stolen off a board in Chattanooga. [Laughter] It got covered by AP wire service and CNN international. We called up the agency, “We think you’ve got an idea that’s bigger than a billboard idea. Take three months; work on it. What would it look like if the cows were the iconic spokespeople—"spokesbovine”—for Chick-fil-A? What would a campaign like that look like?
Ann: We were driving down to Atlanta on I-75 going to the Olympics in Atlanta when we first saw that sign. I remember pointing it out, laughing out loud, like, “How creative is that!”
Dave: I’m a marketing/advertising major. You didn’t know that, Bob, did you? You thought I just majored in football. [Laughter] That was my major in college. I remember—our kids were little, we were in the mini-van, all strapped in—I looked up and said, “Genius.” Just knowing, seeing it—that’s going to—. And I didn’t know what it’s doing, but you do. Way to go.
Bob: You stop and think. Whether it’s “Where’s the Beef,” or “Have it Your Way,” or whatever. Those all run a season, and then they’re done. How long have the cows been around?
Steve: When I left, 20 years. They’re still trying to use them.
Bob: That’s a pretty long history for cows in a business.
Steve: You don’t have to worry about them saying anything stupid [Laughter] or making a mistake on social media, either.
Bob: Let me ask you about this. When you started with Chick-fil-A in the early 80’s, did you ever imagine that a quick-service restaurant selling chicken would be at the center of a cultural controversy in America?
Steve: No. Not at all. I have a lot of thoughts which I unpack as I look back. First of all, I never thought I’d be part of the journey that would result in a brand so popular that people, at least some people, can’t see themselves living without it. That’s the marketer’s ultimate dream.
But bigger than that, I never thought I’d have a career where I could have this healthy balance and tension between being a marketing professional and being a believer where I had the opportunity to express my faith, not so much in what I said, but in what I did, in how I made decisions, what I valued, how I treated people. Quite frankly, Truett was my role model.
To have that kind of opportunity and then see the kind of talent that culture attracted. I was surrounded by some of the brightest people anywhere in marketing, and in the city of Atlanta, which has a whole bunch of Fortune 100 companies, some of the brightest talent anywhere. Yet all completely in lockstep with a purpose and the mission of the business. Because of the purpose of the business, a high passion level—and high energy level, because for most of us, it was also an expression of our own personal missions.
I had never dreamed of this kind of experience, and I wasn’t going to write a book. I went back to the office occasionally because I was on the board for three years. I just rolled off. I would do these small sessions of Q and A with staff members. I realized that the vast majority of them didn’t know the crucial milestone stories of the business.
So, I had the unique position, I thought—and I had several people encourage me to do a biographical story of the brand. I couldn’t separate that from my story and Truett’s story, so the book is written—really the front third of the story is Truett’s story and my story in parallel. Then we meet. Then the story unfolds through Chick-fil-A.
Bob: There’s so much in here that’s fascinating from a consumer level, from a leadership level, from a marketing level, like you talked about Dave. I keep coming back and thinking—there’s a business book out, and I think the title of it is Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch.
Bob: I just think about being parents and having a home, and we talk a lot about moms and dads being purposeful and intentional, and you need to be strategic as you raise your kids. We’re not saying strategy is wrong. If you don’t have a strategy, there something is wrong.
But at the end of the day, what’s going to matter most around your house—in your family, in your marriage—is the culture you create. It’s what the kids see. It’s your values being expressed and lived out in your marriage and in your family. That does eat your strategy for lunch.
Dave: That’s what I wanted to end with. Steve, let’s get personal. How did you live out all you learned at Chick-fil-A as a husband and as a dad? You’ve got 45 seconds. [Laughter]
Steve: I took a lot of cues from the corporate purpose. I’m glad they came early in my career there. I went from secular business environment to that culture and that crisis that literally drove us to our knees in that hotel room to write the corporate purpose. It transformed not only the business. It transformed my life.
I made up my mind—that purpose worked for me. Diane agreed. Transformational spiritual moment for me was Malachi 3:8-12. Quite frankly, money was a stumbling block for me—how I looked at money and how I looked at giving and stewardship.
God used that in a mighty way. Through Chick-fil-A over time, I actually grew very, very fond of—which melded well with Diane, because she is more than fond; she’s passionate—of giving.
Truett was a giver. One of the most powerful things I remember in an early executive committee meeting—I looked at one of the business profit and loss statements. I looked down towards the bottom of the sheet, and here’s this contribution line. It was almost exactly ten percent of the net cash flow. He was tithing the business. They still tithe the business. Now most of it goes into three foundations.
I can’t separate my experience at Chick-fil-A from the way it shaped my life. I’ve asked my kids. I’ve said, “OK. What have mom and I done that’s either encouraged you or discouraged you in your Christian walk? What do I need to confess?”
Ann: That’s a good question.
Steve: I’ve asked them recently. They’re grown adults. Both of them have basically said, “You have nothing—” It’s hard for me to say. We just watched. Kids pay attention. They know whether you cherish each other. They know how you’re spending money. They know what’s important on your calendar. My kids turned out pretty good. Praise God for that.
Bob: Because culture—
Bob: —matters. At home, in a business, wherever. Steve, thank you. Thanks for sharing this story. I feel like we need to do about 12 more episodes. I want to know what happened to the carrot slaw, and I want to know why the sweet potato fries didn’t work. [Laughter] I have so many questions that I’m sure so many do. We’ll save that for another day.
Let me just say again, for those who are thinking, “Did Chick-fil-A somehow sponsor these last two days of FamilyLife Today? Sounds like you guys are doing a commercial for Chick-fil-A.” We love Chick-fil-A. More than Chick-fil-A, we love the principles on which the company is built. Steve, you capture the culture that built that company in your book Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand.
We’ve got that book in our FamilyLife Resource Center. Go online to order your copy of the book or call 1-800-FLTODAY. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
We have Chick-fil-A fan David Robbins, the President of FamilyLife, joining us here today.
David: The number one combo, no butter and Diet Dr. Pepper.
Bob: You’ve got the app, right?
David: I do, I do. I use it. They treat kids right, you know? It’s a good place for Meg and I.
Bob: It is.
David: This is a really powerful conversation. It’s not because I want to run my home like a Chick-fil-A although I would take my kids saying, “It’s my pleasure,” a little more often from time to time. It reminds me of the core idea that pertains to all I hope to be as a Jesus follower, as a husband, and things I want to pass on as a father. It’s the importance of culture that’s forming in our family. It’s forming every day. It’s getting passed on.
Culture is that intangible collection of ideas and habits that silently answers the questions, “What is most valuable? What should I do in this situation? What should I steer clear of?”
This conversation challenges me to take stock and evaluate about the culture in my home, in my family, in this season—not in the past season, but right now. There’s no doubt—I’m going to train my kids around certain boundaries and different behaviors—but what are they silently picking up on what it means to be a Robbins? What do we pursue? What do we stand for? What do we stand against?
Like Steve said, culture is caught. I feel like I’m driving home today going, “We’re doing all sorts of things, but what type of culture are we intentionally creating?” I’m so grateful for Steve Robinson serving as the chairman of the FamillyLife board. I catch things like this from him all the time. He’s such an inspiring friend to me.
Bob: He has been a great friend to this ministry for many years, and we are grateful for him.
I’ll put in the order, and we can head over to Chick-fil-A here when we’re done.
David: Let’s go.
Bob: Thanks, David.
Let me remind listeners before we’re done here today. We have a lot of listeners that are taking part in FamilyLife’s “Stronger Forever” workout plan for couples this summer to build stronger, healthier marriage relationships. I think one of the reasons why so many couples have signed up for this is because one couple—among all those who have signed up and downloaded the workout guide we’ve created—one couple is going to be joining us on the 2020 Love Like You Mean It® marriage cruise. This happens in February, Valentine’s week of 2020. The cruise is now almost sold out, but we saved a cabin for one couple.
If you want to be eligible, maybe win that cabin, along with round-trip air fare to join us on the cruise, go to FamilyLifeToday.com and download the “Stronger Forever” workout plan. There is no purchase necessary to enter. The contest began back on July 1st of 2019. It ends on August 30th, 2019. Official rules can be found at FamilyLife.com/strongerforever.
Tomorrow we are going to talk about a missing ingredient in parenting that can make a huge difference as you raise your children. Sam Crabtree joins us to explain what that missing element is. We hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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