Chick-fil-A’s Packed Drive-Thrus During COVID Weren’t a Mirage

    The chicken chain's sales soared across the board last year. 

    Fast Food | April 13, 2022 | Danny Klein
    Chick-fil-A drive-thru employee handing food out the window.
    Chick-fil-A scored high marks in QSR magazine's Drive-Thru Study in 2021, and it appears those sentiments translated directly into record sales.

    Those lines of cars you saw curving around Chick-fil-A drive-thrus throughout the pandemic? Turns out they were far more than social media fodder. According to the company’s annual FDD, of Chick-fil-A’s 1,836 U.S. freestanding restaurants outside of malls (those open and operated for at least a full calendar year, from a total of 2,023), average annual sales volumes clocked in at $8.142 million last year, with 849 of those, or 46 percent, producing figures at or above. One operator pushed $17.16 million.

    Roughly 35 percent of the pool produced annual sales volumes under $7.2 million; 34 percent between $7.2 and $9 million; and 31 percent above $9 million.

    That $8.142 million figure, though, was nearly 15 percent higher than Chick-fil-A’s 2020 result of $7.096 million.

    Mall stores, which naturally don’t have a drive-thru, generated AUVs of $3.2 million in 2021. There was one, however, that raked up $14.7 million. Roughly 32 percent came in under $2 million; while 34 percent were between $2 and $3.2 million; and 34 percent in excess of the top target. Chick-fil-A counts 187 malls stores open at least a year.

    READ MORE: How Chick-fil-A turned its drive-thru into a hospitality experience 

    Across the entire calendar, Chick-fil-A closed 16 mall restaurants, of which zero had been open for less than a year. Eleven freestanding stores shut down, too. All of those were open north of a year as well.

    In total, Chick-fil-A finished 2021 with 2,311 franchised and company-operated locations (all but 76 are franchised)—a net change of 102 from last year’s 2,209. In the past three calendars, the chain has grown its domestic base by 322 locations.

    Chick-fil-A also exited with 393 licensed units—the majority of which are in airports and college campuses—an increase of three over 2020. That figure is up 29 stores across the same three-year stretch.

    As a company, soaring AUVs led to record performance. Chick-fil-A’s revenue climbed to $5.8 billion last year, well ahead of the $4.3 billion it appreciated in 2020 and $3.8 billion the year prior. Comprehensive earnings of $1.198 billion sailed $715.9 million ($647 million in 2019).

    As franchise and corporate store counts totaled 2,325, 2,219, and 2,117 in 2021, 2020, and 2019, respectively, systemwide sales lifted from $12.2 to $13.7 to $16.7 billion.

    Chick-fil-A had just north of $2 billion in cash and cash equivalents headed into 2022. Before the year, the number was $1.5 billion.

    Total assets were $11.97 billion versus $7.27 billion in 2020.

    Chick-fil-A has begun to invest in its own distribution capabilities, too. A Cartersville, Georgia, facility, which supplies restaurants with ingredients, packaging, and other materials, began operations in March 2020 and has the capacity to provide up to 300 restaurants. A second full-scale distribution facility, in Mebane, North Carolina, is expected to open this year.

    Chick-fil-A also opened a production facility in Valencia, California, in September 2020 that produces pre-squeezed and pasteurized lemon juice for sale and distribution to restaurants. It currently supplies lemon juice chain-wide.

    The company plans to continue expanding its supply chain network with a new, combined campus that will house both a third, full-scale distribution facility and second lemon juice operation. The distribution center will open mid-2023 in Hutchins, Texas. The lemon juice production in 2024.

    On the international growth front, Chick-fil-A currently operates five franchised stores outside the U.S., all in Toronto. It opened its first Puerto Rico location in March 2022 as well. The company said in the FDD it’s “actively exploring” opportunities to continue franchised expansion in both, in addition to considering opportunities to scale “into other international locations.” The company previously hinted Asia as a “big prize” target.

    Chick-fil-A also upped advertising spend following a dip in 2020. The company spent about $156 million last year after $131 million during the COVID-depth calendar. The $156 million was closer to 2019’s $149 million.

    These results come under new ownership, as Chick-fil-A executive Dan T. Cathy stepped down on November after an eight-year run. Andrew T. Cathy, Dan Cathy’s son, took over, while Dan Cathy remained chairman of Chick-fil-A. Tim Tassopoulos, president and chief operating officer, continued in his role as well.

    Andrew Cathy, only the chain’s third CEO, began his Chick-fil-A career in 2005, working two years as operator of a store in St. Petersburg, Florida. In 2007, he became part of the Support Center Staff as a franchisee selection consultant. After becoming the leader of franchisee selection, Andrew Cathy joined Chick-fil-A’s executive committee in 2015 as chief people officer before becoming head of operations. He then helmed international strategy in 2016 and was named VP of operations in 2019.

    S. Truett Cathy, Dan Cathy’s father, opened the first Chick-fil-A in 1967 in Atlanta’s Greenbriar Shopping Center. He started the business, in earnest, in 1946, when he and his brother, Ben, opened an Atlanta diner known as The Dwarf Grill (later renamed The Dwarf House).

    Dan Cathy became president and COO in 2001 and CEO in 2013. When he was first appointed president and COO, the chain earned $1.24 billion in sales and had just over 1,000 restaurants. By the time he became CEO, the company collected sales of $5.78 billion across 1,881 restaurants. It’s now the highest-earning chicken chain in the country by some distance