As the daily lunch flock descends, drive-through vehicles encircle the Daytona Beach Chick-fil-A on the northwest corner of International Speedway Boulevard and Williamson Boulevard. Inside, customers calmly queue at the counter. Gary Harris,
the site’s franchised restaurant operator, sits at a table, indistinguishable except for occasional visits from general manager Rebecca Hintz. He serves up this nugget: a long-ago summer job lifting chicken-filled crates at a processing plant in Canton, GA built football muscles in a youthful version of himself.
“Little did I know I’d be in the chicken business,” Harris says now, chuckling. “I thought I’d seen enough of it.” Decades later, the still fit Harris has shepherded the Daytona Beach Chick-fil-A since its 1995 debut. Now in his 22nd year, he has witnessed growth and change both in his restaurant and in the surrounding area. He likes what he sees, citing recent traffic and beautification upgrades that accompanied the Daytona Rising project.
Harris’s Chick-fil-A career tracks back 30 years. A native of Douglas, GA he has lived in Starke, FL and in Valdosta and Thomasville, GA. Two years at South Georgia College were followed by a stint in the Marine Corps and a reservist in Jacksonville. It was while working for a powertrain manufacturer that friends operating Chick-fil-A locations in Brunswick and Valdosta encouraged him to research the company. “And I said, ‘hmmm, that sounds pretty good,’” Harris says. “So, that was the beginning of it.”
Molding that national brand into a Daytona Beach institution has been Harris’s specialty. He’s done it by leveraging iconic Chick-fil-A founder, S. Truett Cathy’s, business principles. “We want it to be the same everywhere you go. That way people can count on kindness, customer service, and the famous ‘my pleasure’. They can count on cleanliness and high-quality food. Healthy, good food. So we evolve, but we all came into it with the same goals.”
“Second-mile service” is a key Chick-fil-A principle that Harris, if he swore, would swear by. Biblically based (Book of Matthew 5:41), the second-mile customer service philosophy was introduced company-wide in the mid-2000s. At its heart it means going above and beyond what customers expect: Chick-fil-A employees roam the dining room to refill drinks, open doors for customers, and engage in conversation, among other helpful gestures. Harris notes that employees refreshing drinks and dispensing other small kindnesses sets Chick-fil-A apart from many other quick-service industry competitors. “We have had other restaurant operators campout in our dining room to try to figure out how to copy our service style. I walked right up to them and told them if they don’t commit from the top of management and hire and train good people exactly how to treat the customer, it won’t work. It isn’t rocket science. It’s work, and it’s not easy.”
To Harris, there is no big secret to success—It is about treating people the way you would want to be treated and making expectations very clear. Any business, whether homegrown
or housed under a national-chain umbrella, can implement
the concept. It’s the sincerity of those heart-felt extras that distinguish a successful business model. “If you’re in any business, you’ve got to have customer service,” Harris says. “Everyone just wants to be treated fairly. And they want to know that you care.”
This is a common thread that runs through Harris’s life. He works every day and takes pride in teaching the Chick-fil-A way to younger and older employees alike. As he looks into the distance and counts out the number of young men and women he started in business, his face lights up with a smile. “I treat all of these employees like family. Just like a family we have ‘learning opportunities,’ but because I have a close handle on my business, there aren’t many surprises. We work with many different people, but I always make sure the expectations are clear.” He adds that he helps new hires learn the ropes, and sometimes they figure out they are not cut out for this business. It’s just part of the process: “We help them realize where they will be happy, perhaps elsewhere, and can use their passion for good.”
Chick-fil-A has employees from all walks of life, but the thing everyone has in common is dreams. Harris recently started a dream board in the back of the restaurant. On the dream board employees write what they dream of doing or being. According to Harris, “we have kids who want to be doctors, lawyers, you name it.” This dream board gives Harris another way to connect with his employees and make sure they are learning the crucial skills he can teach them. According to Harris, “I think I learn as much from our millennial employees as they learn from me.”
When it comes to meeting customer expectations, Harris leaves nothing to chance. He tastes everything his restaurant serves every day, and he teaches his employees exactly how the food should taste. “It gets back to consistency. Families trust us to feed them, and we are not going to let them down,” Harris says. “There is only one way to know how something tastes.”
The final nugget of success Harris imparts is empowerment. “You have to empower your people to do what they feel is right,” Harris says. As a simple example, Harris’s employees are empowered to give away one sandwich a day to someone who they think needs it or maybe looks like they could use a little unexpected happiness in their day.
Harris also credits his restaurant location as a positive factor for his business. He operated an Ocala location before hearing of the impending Daytona Beach restaurant. “I think Daytona is a great place,” Harris says. “It’s been great for business. We’ve been very successful, and there are a lot of great people here. The business community is vibrant. And the way they’ve done International Speedway Boulevard is very productive for business.” Harris’s property — an ISB icon — lures residents, interstate travelers, and visitors, all of whom heed the familiar red-and-white signage for their particular chicken fix.
Community involvement is also a central part of Harris’s success story. “We’re involved in our community. You have to be involved in the community. We have a marketing director (Doree Derrick), and I can’t even keep up with what she’s got going on.” In fact, Harris accompanied Derrick to a recent church-school function where he logged time as a Chick-fil-A cow. “I dressed up and did the cow for about three hours,” Harris says. “It’s a grueling job — hot — but I love it. People of all ages love it.”
Aside from family, church, and recreation, Harris is keen on helping others. Especially through the annual Daytona Blues Festival fundraiser — where he sits on the board — and the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), which sponsors Good News Clubs in schools, among other ministries. He’s worked with the CEF for more than a decade. “I love it,” Harris says. “I love both of them, but [the CEF] I spend more time in. It’s just good stuff. You help as much as you can. If you do that, you can live a life well lived.”
“People ask what your gift is. My gift is service. I live to serve. You want to try to leave the earth a lot better than you found it.” The proof, to Harris, is his restaurant’s success. “Even in a changing economy, maybe we have had one or two months in the last 20 some years when we’ve had flat sales,” he says of the Daytona Beach location. “But most of the time it’s been straight up. We’re very fortunate.”