It did not seem like an impossible deadline …
when I promised to open the restaurant at 10:00 a.m. on August 12, 1971.
We had opened 10 other restaurants, all of them on time.
At Chick-fil-A, we were serious about our promises.
We had promised to open four new restaurants in 1971; all of them were to open on a specific date, coinciding with the grand opening of a new shopping mall.
We didn’t make these commitments based on whether it would be easy or hard for us to keep our promises. We didn’t make the promises based on any, “if, and, or but.” We simply promised to open the restaurants on time, and we did.
The first grand opening of 1971 was relatively easy. The next two were tough. The fourth, in Cordova Mall, Pensacola, Florida, was a nightmare come true!
Early in life, I had learned to think of hard and challenging times as character-building opportunities. The year 1971 was an unforgettable “character-building opportunity.”
The restaurant we would open in Cordova Mall, Pensacola, Florida, would be our 11th Chick-fil-A restaurant in a shopping center. With the assistance of our newest staff member, Perry Ragsdale, I had drawn all of the construction plans. However, to get our building permit in Pensacola, the plans would have to be redrawn by an architect registered in Florida.
We would not be able to build out the leasehold improvements ourselves, as we usually did. It was necessary to hire a locally licensed contractor. That would be tough because there was a critical shortage of local contractors interested in building out a restaurant in the new mall.
Licenses and permits were unbelievably hard to secure compared to what we had experienced in other locations.
There were 85 store locations in Cordova Mall. Most of the merchants intended to open on time: August 12.
The construction of the mall itself was far behind schedule. Usually, the mall would be completed well in advance of the time individual stores started the build-out of their own leasehold improvements. Having the mall under construction at the same time that the stores were trying to finish and furnish their stores created a living nightmare.
After finally securing a local general contractor and getting all of our permits and licenses, it became apparent to me that we were facing an impossible task in getting the restaurant open on time.
However, I had promised the mall developer, the landlord, my boss, and myself that we would open on time. Can I keep the impossible deadline?
To keep that promise, I decided to move my family to a motel on the beach and spend all day, every day, on the site until that restaurant was open and operating. I was committed to open on time but knew that I couldn’t do alone.
Before we left home, I had a sign painted on a large piece of white vinyl wall covering to hang in the mall above the front of the restaurant to confirm my promise. The sign read:
I expected the sign to encourage people to take me seriously and want to help me open on time.
The response was just the opposite! The people working in the mall and stores thought it was funny. They laughed, joked, and made fun of it. They continually reminded me that it would never happen, that it was an impossible deadline.
The situation started bad and got worse. Every day, it seemed that I was further behind than the day before. It was summer and awfully hot inside the mall because the air conditioning for the mall itself was not yet finished. I stayed there all day, every day, persuading subcontractors and individual workers to come work on the Chick-fil-A restaurant in the evening when they finished working on their regular jobs. I tried to make friends with every worker.
Workers in the mall joked and continued to tell me it would never happen. After a while, they almost convinced me that it was an impossible deadline. I began to hate that sign.
Personal problems developed. My hair started falling out in small patches. The dermatologist said that this was caused by stress, and the hair would grow back, but that the patches would probably be white. Oh no! An acquaintance of mine had that problem. When his hair grew back, he looked like a black leopard with white spots.
I was tired and weary. Why not just give up, like so many other merchants were doing? I couldn’t. My promise was on that sign.
Every morning, all the way from the motel to the mall, I prayed, but each day, it seemed that we were further behind than the day before. I found myself praying all day, every day, but I could not see an answer. Each day, the situation was worse than the day before.
Every day, someone else made another joke about the sign. I hated that sign.
Even the local newspaper thought we had set an impossible deadline. Two days before we were to open, The Pensacola News took a photograph of the front of our unfinished restaurant, and published the picture the day before the mall was to open. The floor tile had not been laid, the air conditioning was not in, the ceiling was not in place, and the restaurant equipment had not been installed. The caption read,
SIGN ATTESTS CHICK-FIL-A WILL BE IN BUSINESS … although much work appears necessary before doors open.
I hated that sign! Without that sign, I could have found an excuse. Once I put that sign up where anyone and everyone could see it, there was no way I could back out on my commitment.
On August 12th, at 3 a.m., the night before we were to open, we went to the motel for a three hour break to take a bath, freshen up, and be back at 6 a.m. to open at 10 a.m.
When we arrived at 6 a.m. on grand opening day, the air-conditioning workers were still installing the duct work, and not all of the restaurant equipment was installed.
We had two cash registers. When I plugged them in, one caught on fire! I had to go and borrow one from a hot dog restaurant that was not going the make the opening.
Amazingly, at 10:00 a.m., August 12, Chick-fil-A opened in Cordova Mall!
We were one of only 18 of the 85 stores to open on time.
How had we kept the impossible deadline?
The mall manager came by and said, “Collins, get that sign down!” He never wanted me to put it up, but finally agreed to let me keep it up until opening day.
When I climbed the ladder and reached to take the sign down, as I touched it, a surge of energy rippled through my body, and I recalled Isaiah 65:24: “Before they call, I will answer.”
God had answered my prayers before I ever left Atlanta!
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