Three months into his new role as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt wanted to help his wife find a job, too. At Chick-fil-A.
And so, as The Washington Post reported on Tuesday, Pruitt used his government position and the help of an agency aide to arrange a call, at first with the company’s chief executive, and ultimately with someone from its legal department, to discuss his wife’s prospects as a franchise owner.
Pruitt’s wife, Marlyn Pruitt, began but did not complete a franchisee application, the company told The Post, and Pruitt never opened a Chick-fil-A location.
It was not the first time Pruitt has drawn scrutiny while in office. Other examples include asking an aide to help with personal tasks - including finding a used Trump hotel mattress - and calling on lobbyists to help arrange foreign trips.
And it also served as a reminder that, well, it’s really, really hard to open a Chick-fil-A franchise, even without the pull of a government agency.
“I see a lot of situations in which you have franchise systems that get less and less selective because they really want to grow, and they’ll take anybody who comes along,” said Jonathan Maze, executive editor of the commercial food service industry outlet Restaurant Business. “Chick-fil-A doesn’t have to do that.”
Carrie Kurlander, vice president of public relations for Chick-fil-A, said the Georgia-based chain receives more than 40,000 inquiries per year from people interested in becoming restaurant operators (the company’s term for “franchisee”). After filling out an initial “expression of interest” online, they complete a formal, written application. From there, the company conducts a series of recorded, live video and in-person interviews with applicants, taking past business experience and leadership skills into consideration.
The chain opens 100 to 115 new restaurants a year, Kurlander said, and operators typically run one restaurant each. The company runs more than 2,200 restaurants in 47 states, and the average restaurant makes more than $4 million in annual sales.
Again: that’s 40,000 people who hope to become operators, and roughly 100 to 115 who make it through. To compare, of Harvard’s 42,749 applicants for the school’s incoming freshman class, it admitted 1,962.
“We are very intentional with our selection process as we believe this model is the key to ensuring our customers receive the best care and experience possible,” Kurlander said.
Operators pay an initial $10,000 fee to be “granted the rights necessary to operate a franchised Chick-fil-A,” according to the company website. That’s compared to other fast-food chains where franchisees can invest hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars to open a restaurant, industry experts said.
Still, when they’re approved, operators don’t have ownership over the land or restaurant itself. The company pays all startup costs including real estate, construction and equipment. Operators may not own other outside businesses.
“The reason why it’s only $10,000 is because Chick-fil-A controls everything,” said Joel Libava, a consultant in franchises. “You can call yourself a franchisee, but you’re an operator.”
Still, a rigorous selection is part of the brand, and the brand comes in high regard. Maze described Chick-fil-A as the “hottest big restaurant chain in the U.S. right now,” and noted that the company generated more than $9 billion in revenue in 2017. Operators are also guaranteed one day off per week — the restaurant is closed on Sundays, a practice that started in 1946 when the chain’s founder decided employees should have a day “to rest and worship if they choose,” Kurlander said.
And Libava said that with its reputation for high-quality food and strong customer service, Chick-fil-A in many ways earned its standing.
“They are considered a highly profitable fast-food franchise operation, even though they’re not a franchise,” Libava said. “They are considered a good, profitable, well-run company.”
Maze said it wasn’t just the use of government strings that surprised him about Pruitt’s Chick-fil-A rendezvous.
The job pays well, but only if operators are willing to grind it out in their physical restaurants six days per week.
“It’s not really the type of job where you would expect somebody to pull favors to get,” Maze said. “You still have to really, really like the restaurant business. That element is pretty shocking to be honest. Really, it’s not a cushy job.”