S. Truett Cathy dies at 93; rose from poverty to build Chick-fil-A
Billionaire Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy, who rose from poverty by building a privately held restaurant chain that famously closes every Sunday but drew unwanted attention for the Cathy family’s opposition to gay marriage, died Monday at his home in suburban Atlanta. He was 93.
The company announced his death but did not disclose the cause.
Cathy opened his first postwar diner in an Atlanta suburb in 1946 and by 1967 he had founded and opened his first Chick-fil-A Inc. restaurant in Atlanta. Over ensuing decades, the chain’s boneless chicken sandwich he is credited with inventing would propel Chick-fil-A expansion to more than 1,800 outlets in 40 states and the District of Columbia. By early 2013, annual sales topped $5 billion as the chain offered up a taste of the South that went beyond chicken to such offerings as sweet tea, biscuits and gravy.
Under the religiously conservative founder, the chain gained prominence for its Bible Belt observance of Sunday — none of its restaurants are open on that day, to allow employees a day of rest. Its executives often said the chain made as much money in six days as its competitors do in seven.
Those religious views helped win Cathy and his family a loyal following from conservative customers, but also invited protests when Cathy’s son defended the company’s donations to groups campaigning against gay marriage.
Cathy’s son, Dan, who is now chairman and president of the chain, told the Baptist Press in 2012 that the company was “guilty as charged” for backing “the biblical definition of a family.” Gay rights groups and others called for boycotts and kiss-ins at Cathy’s restaurants. The controversy later subsided.
Cathy’s $6-billion fortune as the founder of Chick-fil-A puts him on the yearly Forbes magazine list of the wealthiest Americans.
Samuel Truett Cathy was born March 14, 1921, in Eatonton, Ga., and grew up poor in Atlanta.
“I’ve experienced poverty and plenty, and there’s a lesson to be learned when you’re brought up in poverty,” he said in 2007. “I had to create some good work habits and attitude.”
An opportunity in 1961 led to the development of the restaurant chain’s trademark chicken sandwich when a company that cooked boneless, skinless chicken for airline meals wanted to sell him pieces that were too big for the airline customer’s needs. Cathy took those pieces and cooked them in a pressure cooker and served them in buttered buns.
The sandwich was sold at independent restaurants for a few years before he opened his first Chick-fil-A restaurant at an Atlanta shopping mall in 1967.
His 2007 book, “How Did You Do It, Truett?,” outlined his strategy for success that included setting priorities, being courteous, cautiously expanding a business and not being burdened with debt.
“There’s really no secret for success,” he said then. “I hope it will open eyes for people. They don’t have to follow my recipe, but this is what works for me.”
Cathy is survived by his wife of 65 years, Jeannette McNeil Cathy; sons Dan T. and Don “Bubba” Cathy; daughter Trudy Cathy White; 19 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
McGhee writes for the Associated Press.
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