Chick-fil-A operator Mary Johnson’s former pilot and paratrooper background

Mary Johnson
Mary Johnson, a West Point grad and Army veteran, brought her Army team-building experience to her four-year-old Chick-fil-A store in North Dover, where she knows many of her customers by name.//Photography by David Kleinot

By Kathy Canavan

Mary Johnson’s résumé looks something like this: West Point grad, Army paratrooper, helicopter pilot, airplane pilot, battalion commander in Iraq, operator of the North Dover Chick-fil-A.

If the last item seems out of place on a list of extraordinary achievements, it is not. Storied West Point accepts 9 percent of its applicants, but Chick-fil-A accepts only 5 percent.

“If I had known how hard it is to get it, I think I would have been daunted by the prospect,” Johnson said.

Chick-fil-A attracts more than 20,000 franchisee wannabes annually, according to Franchise Chatter, an industry blog. One reason: The franchise fee for the top-rated chain is only $10,000.

The buy-in was $5,000 when Johnson applied to the fast-casual chain eight years ago. At $10,000 now, it’s still tens of thousands of dollars less than competing chains. And, unlike other franchises, the operators don’t pony up one cent for construction.

Chick-fil-A Logo

That’s a bargain because Chick-fil-A tops the industry in terms of average sales per restaurant at $3.1 million annually, besting runners-up McDonald’s, Jason’s Deli, Krispy Kreme, and Panera Bread.

The chicken restaurant’s franchises operate much differently than competitors’, though — Chick-fil-A picked the site for Johnson’s restaurant on Route 13 near the Route 1 exit, paid for it, and built the gleaming three-year-old restaurant there. Johnson owns nothing — but she does get 50 percent of the restaurant’s pretax profits after the bills are paid and Chick-fil-A has taken 15 percent of gross sales off the top. When she retires, her store reverts back to the family-owned, privately held corporation.

In the meantime, Johnson seems to know every other customer at her North Dover restaurant.

“Hi, Sabrina. How are you?”

“Hi, Glenda. How are you?”

“Did you go to the banquet last night?”

“Hi, Roger. Good to see you. Give me a hug.”

“Who are these good-looking people? He looks like a young Ricky Martin.”

Johnson’s own arc into Chick-fil-A started 12 years ago when she was a lunch mom at her children’s Christian school in North Carolina. The local Chick-fil-A operator delivered coolers of chicken nuggets, and they made small talk. Then one day she wore her West Point class jacket. “I’d worn this jacket maybe three times in 30 years, but I wore it this one day, and he looked at me and he said, ‘You went to West Point?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘So did I.’”

They traded stories and eventually he asked her if she’d ever considered operating a Chick-fil-A. “I had never even eaten Chick-fil-A,” she said. “The whole time I was at Fort Bragg, I drove by a Chick-fil-A every day but I didn’t notice it.”

She chauffeured her three kids to Chick-fil-A, but like many moms, she wouldn’t order for herself. “You know how you’re a vacuum cleaner when you have kids — I’d eat whatever they’d leave. I’d eat a chicken strip and I’d say, ‘Wow, that’s different. That’s good.’”

Fast forward to 2005, when she had segued from the Army to the National Guard. Her unit was being deployed to Iraq. Her friend the local Chick-fil-A operator brought menu items to her mobilization ceremony.

Johnson’s year in Iraq touched her as an American soldier. She remembered guarding the Iraqis who agreed to man the voting booths in the country’s initial democratic election. “Some of these people never had the right to vote in their country,” she said, tearing up.

The year away was a game-changer for her family. Her father was undergoing treatment for cancer. He died while she was flying back from Iraq to be with him.

Like so many other soldiers, she missed a year of her children’s lives. “They were 5, 7, and 9 when I left, and they all had birthdays while I was gone. When I got home, we took them out of school and home-schooled them for about two years. We traveled all over Europe and California,’’ she said. “I wanted to just do a big group hug and just be together. You can’t get that time back, but I tried to do the best I could afterwards.”

The “best” meant no more overseas tours. She and her pilot-husband, Roger, started thinking retirement from the military.

“I enjoyed the military, but I really wanted to have kids and be a mom and be at home,” she said. “I knew that I didn’t want to be active duty and traveling all over the world.”

She came full circle back to Chick-fil-A. Her franchisee friend recommended it, and she liked what she read about Truett Cathy, who founded the chain. “I liked the fact that he began as a man of modest means and he was a very humble servant and a man of great moral fiber,” she said.

She decided to apply for a franchise. She met the Cathy family, who started the chain in the early 1960s and grew it to nearly $6 billion in annual sales and locations in 42 states and Washington, D.C.

Devout Southern Baptists, the Cathys close their 1,900 restaurants on Sundays to give workers time to attend church services and spend the day with their families. Their corporate purpose reads like a prayer: “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.”

The Cathys liked Johnson, and she liked them. She became an operator at Dover Mall in 2008, then switched to the more spacious new North Dupont Highway store in 2011.

“I would do business with them on a handshake,” Johnson said. “Even to, now, their third generation, there is an incredible trust that all the operators have for the Cathys. They are just tremendous people.”

“It’s not just about coming to work and selling chicken,” she said. “I like the idea of adding value to our community. I like the idea of providing a job. I’ve always been a part of a team in some respect, and I like building teams and mentoring people and helping people to be more than they are. There’s so much opportunity in the world.”

Johnson’s biggest challenge is finding employees, because running a Chick-fil-A is labor-intensive. The lemonade is made from fresh lemons squeezed daily in the store kitchen, the chicken is hand-breaded on site, cabbage is shredded daily, salads are made in small batches, and biscuits are mixed and rolled out all day long.

“I can’t find people who want to work. It’s hard. I’m willing to let you work whenever you want. We hire that way. If they can only work on Tuesday, or they can only work 6 in the morning ’til 3, or every other Friday, or on Saturday when the moon is full,” she said, adding that all her full-time workers and her managers earn more than the current minimum wage, but she opposes the move for a $15 minimum wage.

Beth Hesterman was a customer and a friend of Johnson’s before she became a hostess at Johnson’s store, which is moving toward full-service with hostesses delivering meals to seated customers. “She’s such a fantastic boss. She’ll work with your schedule. She’s very supportive. She’s honorable. She’s just an amazing woman.”

When the firestorm over Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s remarks against same-sex marriage hit in 2012, Johnson was caught in the middle.

One evening she wrote a heartfelt email to three old teammates from the West Point women’s basketball team, saying she hoped they didn’t think she hated them or thought badly of them because of the remarks Cathy made.

The very next day, protestors showed up in her parking lot blocking the customers.

“They were standing outside, and I went out to talk to them and I asked them why they were protesting me,” she said, her eyes filled with tears. “They said, ‘Because you hate gay people.’ I said, ‘You don’t even know me.’ And they said, ‘You do because you own the Chick-fil-A and Chick- fil-A hates gay people.’ I asked how he knew that. He said he read it in the Harrington Post. I said, ‘You mean the Huffington Post.’”

“I was thinking. ‘You know, kid, you don’t even know me. How can you stand here and talk about me? All these young men and women go off to war so that you can stand there with a hate sign on my property? You don’t have the right to say that I hate, not when I don’t hate. Go and stand on Lowe’s property and say that. But don’t stand on my property and say that because I fought for this country and you didn’t. A sign that says you hate somebody, that’s not free speech. That’s slander. It’s not even true.”

To Johnson, the Cathys got a bad rap. “It’s not like he was out thumping his chest about what he thought. He was speaking to the Baptist Press and he was asked a specific question about that. There’s lot of gay people at Chick-fil-A, and I think that whole thing was taken out of context,” she said. “Do people really think Chick-fil-A is the only business out there where somebody in leadership or on the board has that viewpoint? What an absurd thought. Everybody’s always preaching tolerance, but who’s intolerant here? Can’t we all just be tolerant of each other’s opinions? Don’t I get to have an opinion too?”

While the company has been sued for discrimination, including a suit filed by a Muslim who said he was fired after he didn’t participate in Christian group prayer, according to Franchise Chatter, Johnson said she has hired people of several faiths and also has gay employees on her staff.

“People have a certain impression about Chick-fil-A being just one thing. You get this comment that Chick-fil-A is a Christian business. What is a Christian business?” she asked. “I’m a Christian. I follow Christ, and I hope that I make decisions in my business that show I follow Christ, but my business isn’t Christian,” she said. “I have people who work for me who are Christian and who are Muslims. I don’t know everybody’s faith. When we hire people, we look for the three C’s — character, chemistry, and competence. Christian is not in there.”

To grow her business and build community, Johnson hired a sales manager, extended her catering operation, and started an art night for adults and an arts-and-crafts program for children. Her sales are up 5 percent this year.

Does she eat at Chick-fil-A now, after seven years as an operator?

“Every day. Twice a day.”

Her favorites: the breakfast burrito sans tortilla and the grilled chicken sandwich.

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