The Best Laid Plans

Elma Smith has always been a planner. She considers her options, figures out what she wants, and then makes a plan.

As a child in Atlanta, GA, she mapped out two dream scenarios. In the first one, she pictured herself unmarried, no kids, and driving a Ferrari to work at a Fortune 500 company. In the other, she was married with kids, and an actress who also worked at the Juliard school. The details even included what type of acting. “Definitely on Broadway or movies, but no sitcoms.”

While those two options haven’t become reality for her yet, her heart for planning has remained the same, even when life consistently messes with her blueprints.

She’s worked for Chick-fil-A for twelve years, but she never intended to be in the restaurant business. After being laid off from the local YMCA for budget reasons, Elma went to the local mall to seek out a job at Bath and Body Works until she could get back on her feet.

As she filled out the application in the food court while eating Chick-fil-A, a woman who worked there offered to refresh her beverage. They struck up a conversation when the woman revealed her mother was named Elma as well, and before lunch was over, Elma received an invitation to a Chick-fil-A Group Audition.

Impressed by the woman's hospitality, Elma decided to attend. Forty people showed up, but she was the only one who left with a job. 

She soon became a certified trainer, and traveled around various Atlanta area Chick-fil-A restaurants serving in a variety of roles. Eventually her training experience landed her the opportunity to come to NYC and help open the world’s largest Chick-fil-A. She’d been born there, and her mom still lived in the city, so she jumped at the opportunity.

When the wild and busy Grand Opening weeks ended, she returned south to the familiar patterns of home, not thinking she’d be back in NYC anytime soon.

But once again, life sent her on another unexpected detour.

Her mom was sick with colon cancer and needed her care immediately. 

She immediately thought of the Chick-fil-A on Fulton Street, and whether they’d be willing to hire her on short notice. Her text barely went out before an answer came back. Luke and the team would love to have her on the crew.

Elma jumped right back into the fast-paced life of the restaurant, and was touched that many of the original Team Members she’d trained not only remembered her, but were excited that she’d returned.

Her planning nature soon kicked in and she began picturing how she would fit in and what roles were best suited for her. Just as the new plans began to settle into place, another disruption arrived when she attended a meeting with Austin Haydel, the Chief Operating Officer.

“I went into the meeting very content in my role: building relationships, and just being a normal leader…but he shut me down several times. He told me I was too comfortable.”

Luke and Austin had decided to promote her to Director, a move that both honored her and challenged her. The surprise twist redeemed a the tough season she'd recently endured. “There really are people out there who think you’re awesome and are willing to take you to the next level with them.” 

She hopes her story can inspire others. “Knowing that somebody who didn’t have a silver spoon in her mouth, that had to work hard for everything, who had no inner connections in the business...they need to know that something like this is possible.”

And while her childhood plans didn’t include this stop on the journey, it’s a welcome one that didn’t require too much editing to the original plans. “In five years, I will be an Operator and a mom of two boys. That’s it. Two boys. I’m done. It’s a wrap.” She laughs, but also makes it known that is definitely the plan.

Her mom made it through multiple procedures and is doing much better now. Elma watches over her and comes in early everyday to 144 Fulton Street with her faithful wire notebook full of detailed schedules and action items.

She’s thriving in a role she never planned for in a city she didn’t know she’d call home.

“Coming back to NYC, I was full of fear…my mom was sick, I was leaving behind every thing I knew. Facing your fear tests your faith. Are you really rocking with God, if it’s just when everything is good? Or can you rock with God when everything is crazy, and you don’t know what’s going on. I was in a box in Atlanta, being a certain way all the time. God was like, that’s not how I designed you. The move turned out to be one of the greatest things in my life.”

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It Comes Out in the Biscuits

“My name is Sophia J Crawford and I was born in Kingston, Jamaica.”

She begins the late afternoon interview without an introduction. The tone is serious, but the spark in her eyes betrays her, as the smile breaks onto her face.

She’s been at Fulton Street from the beginning, arriving every shift before the sun, baking tray after tray of hand-rolled biscuits, and anchoring the kitchen in cleanliness and attention to detail. Her laughter and her music often fill the back of house, and the attentive team member can catch her singing along as well.

Miss Sophia gives out hugs, advice, and cautions with a spirit of care and compassion that she learned from her great grandmother in Jamaica.

“She took me from my mom when I was three, and I was spoiled as the first great granddaughter. I’m a loving and respectful person because of the values she instilled in me. ‘No person is an island, we don’t do this alone, we need each other.’ She taught me that…she was always working. I love working and don’t like sitting down. I live by the things she taught me, even little things like you go to the restroom and get your drink before you go to church, because they’ll be no getting up and interrupting the service.”

Those values took shape at an early age, including her obsession with cleanliness. She wouldn’t walk barefooted, and wore shoes constantly in order to avoid dirt. “I’m a clean freak. I stayed on my bed instead of the floor so I wouldn’t get dirty.” 

She lost her great grandmother when she was fifteen, and is still impacted everyday in her work by what she taught her. “Don’t take your job for granted. I work to please God first and give it my all.”

Sophia started traveling back and forth to the U.S. through a hospitality program in the 2000s, doing work on farms, and landed a job in Indiana as a housekeeper. She jokes that she doesn’t miss Jamaica much, “because everywhere you turn around here there’s a Jamaican. I’d rather be cold than hot!”

Her two daughters were already in the U.S., and it was the arrival of her grandson, King, that inspired the move to NYC to help with the family.

Soon after, on the job at a local business, she received second and third degree burns in a horrible accident that wasn’t her fault. Forced to spend the night in a Manhattan burn unit for seven months, the situation grew worse as she was forced to move, and financial burdens ruined her credit.

Sophia is honest about the physical and emotional pain of the experience, and the healing that is still ongoing from it. “It put me in a spot where I’m dealing with PTSD…I was angry…but I’m much more calm now, and I look at life in a different way, because I could’ve lost it.”

She views her story as one of hope and perseverance, and trust in God. “I would not be where I am without God. The bumps in my road, I think about how he has seen me through. Don’t think about the past, think about the future. If we don’t go through rough times, we don’t know our strength…they can make you stronger, if you let it. Some people don’t know their values until they go through the rough times.”

Applying those lessons, she works full-time and takes night classes to earn a GED, her eyes set on becoming an assistant nurse. Sophia’s heart is to serve and care for cancer patients, particularly children and seniors.

In five years, she hopes to be married (or sooner!), and desires to keep going in her education, because she loves learning new things, and wouldn’t mind owning a small business with one of her daughters. “New stuff makes the adventure nice,” she says.

It’s fitting that her journey landed at Chick-fil-A, because her first meal in the U.S. was at a Chick-fil-A in the Atlanta airport. “It was wonderful. I didn’t know anything about waffle fries.” 

Sophia discovered 144 Fulton Street through a career center called Workforce1.“The values of Truett Cathy drew me in…he believed in good things and was very wise. Off on Sundays to go to church means a lot to me. It’s a nice place to work. The directors are down to earth, not stuck up, so it’s a breath of fresh air compared to other places. And the food is out of this world.”

Sophia is responsible for much of that food in the kitchen, but is best known for her biscuits. She shares that the secret to great ones isn’t that hard and springs from lessons learned in her great grandmother’s home, lessons that apply to so much more than food.

“Love what you do and do it with love. We have a saying back home in Jamaica: the way you feel when you’re cooking is how the food comes out. I come in with an attitude of doing my best and love, and it comes out in the biscuits.”

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Alive With Possibilities

In a restaurant full of unique stories and people, there’s not a name more unique than God’schild Callabrass. There’s no special meaning behind it, just a brief legend of how it came to be.

“My dad turned in the birth certificate and didn’t tell my mom he’d changed the name. It was a surprise to everyone.”

People often ask him it’s a real name, and he assures them that it is. The Team at Fulton Street may refer to him as God’schild, GC, or even Cal, and some form of his name is always being spoken as he transitions through many roles in the restaurant: from first-rate stocker to catering lead, from front counter hospitality to lemon squeezer in the cellar.

His childhood was marked by transitions as well. His father passed away from a heart attack when GC was only two, so he spent time with both parents’ families, moving back and forth between the Bronx and Queens, switching schools every year. In that transient lifestyle, he rarely felt that he belonged, for he knew that every situation was temporary. But he did learn to observe people and how they interacted.

He remembers distinctly at the age of eight riding in a car with his cousin and realizing for the first time what power and influence really meant. Watching the cousin give orders to others, including instructions to commit violence, created a desire in GC to hold power and sway over other people.

“I wanted to be like him, that power he had. He would steal, so I would steal, or he would be selling drugs, and I couldn’t sell drugs, but I would sell toys or pencils on the street.”

Inspired by his grandmother who was a principal of an elementary school, GC wanted to be a teacher, but his relationship with the school system turned into one of conflict rather than development. As a young teen, he retaliated against a bully at school, and fought the security guard intervening to stop him. He was expelled by the NYC Board of Education as a “troubled teenager” and sent to an alternative school to be reacclimatized. His first week there, at the age of thirteen, he lost $800 playing dice with the older students. 

Soon after that he argued passionately with a stranger in the lunch line, the confrontation escalating until threats were made. The person turned out to be a young principal in the school, and GC once again was expelled.

He shares the stories of his struggles as an adolescent with a sense of confession, knowing his current personality doesn’t resemble the belligerence of his youth.

“I’m not that person anymore…I still want power, but I want to use that power to help find solutions for people, to be someone that others ask questions to, to use influence to shape things for the better.”

GC pursues that goal by reading books and watching videos to learn how to speak better, and constantly asking his leaders questions about their own development and what motivates them.

“Hearing other people’s stories inspires me, especially reading Truett Cathy’s story and hearing about his perseverance and perspective. My culture is often ‘this is what it is’ but I want people to see success in others and think ‘I can do that, too.’”

“My heart is for young people. What breaks my heart the most is the lack of exposure so many young people have to what they could be or what opportunities exist for them. And my greatest joy is seeing young people realize what they could be, when they come alive with possibilities.”

It’s one of the reasons he loves working for Chick-fil-A. “They teach you how to uniquely build up your dreams and grow beyond the culture or stereotype you’ve been stuck in.”

Besides wanting to own and operate his own Chick-fil-A, GC is working hard on multiple dreams. He’s building his own high-end fashion brand as well as developing a motivational ministry that helps people overcome their inner skeptics. But his biggest drive right now, the one consuming his mind and influencing his decisions, is one that’s as unique as his name.

He wants to be reunited with his wife.

He met Veronica in seminary. Originally from Russia, she’d spent five years in the states and married God’schild in June of 2017. She recently went home to visit family but because of a clerical mistake concerning stamps in passports, and changes in embassies and immigration laws, she was informed she’d have to remain there for ten years. The separation is wearing on him, but the worst part is Veronica is eight months pregnant and he’s going to miss the birth of his first child.

He’s working with a lawyer to reduce the ban down to three years, while also fighting his own battle with bureaucracy. His passport was recently denied due to his identity being stolen years ago.

“The whole situation is stimulating me to work hard, be creative, and network.”

He feels a deep sense of pride in getting to work at 144 Fulton Street and declares there are only two options for him in his career, working for himself or Chick-fil-A.

“The standards are amazing, you get the opportunity to sell great products, and learn incredible skills and strategies to welcome and serve guests. Chick-fil-A isn’t a job, it’s a career choice. Jobs can be just temporary or just for a paycheck. That’s not the way Chick-fil-A does it. I love being the biggest restaurant but caring for the littlest thing.”

As God’schild embraces the possibilities of his own potential, pursuing the power that influences people for good, his gratitude is evident, and he glows with hope even though his situation could cause him to despair.

“I’m really thankful for this place, giving me more hours to help save money to get my wife back. And on a deeper level, it’s always moving in the direction of what I’ve been working on: becoming better versions of ourselves.”

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The Other Side of the Screen

Children who dine in at Chick-fil-A Fulton Street may not find a playground, but they may find someone even better. Hope Fonseca.

She bounces through the dining room levels at 144 Fulton Street, sharing the famous phrase, “My Pleasure” so effortlessly, guests smile back knowing she means it. Sometimes she catches kids dancing, and that’s when she surprises them with an impromptu dance battle…which is way more fun than a slide.

Hope lives in the Bronx with her aunt and uncle, her cousins, and a dog named Max that may or may not be spoiled from all her attention. The love of dancing sprung from childhood where she dreamed of being a dancer on Broadway, and spent much of her time in after school programs engaged in African and hip-hop dancing, as well as cheerleading, swimming, acting, choirs, and volleyball for good measure.

With all those pursuits, and her energetic and positive demeanor, it’s shocking to discover she originally entered college to study forensics, specifically blood splatter, because of crime shows on TV.

Those diverse interests also include personal training, where she landed a job assisting in a gym after posting “Aspiring Personal Trainer” on her Linkedin account. She loves the interactions with clients, and has no problem jumping into meaningful conversations.

“People feel comfortable with me, in sharing their struggles with me…it brings me great joy and satisfaction helping people get better. I know how it feels to not feel great or confident.” 

It’s in that confession that Hope pulls back the curtain of her smile and exposes the hard parts of her journey, including deep struggles with anxiety and depression.

“I’ve hit really low several times. I did attempt suicide a couple times. I knew I needed I get to a better place, and helping other people feel better makes me better. I love being with people, it helps me not to be alone.”

Her childhood was marked by conflict with her mom, who deals with bipolar disorder, a situation that caused her to live in all five NYC boroughs, spending time in the homes of relatives, and stints in the foster and shelter care systems.

She was timid and shy as a child, and didn’t like going out, but her grandma had a close friend named Elsa who took her out to free and fun things in the community, or around the city, things like church events or Liberty Science Center. Hope credits Elsa for helping her come out of her shell.

The volatile situation in her home escalated as she grew older, and she turned into a protective “mother” to her two younger brothers she adores. There were times when she was forced to react and intervene, and police were called. Although she’s been arrested, there was never any evidence so the arrests never led to convictions, just more disruptions to her life.

Eventually she “learned how to walk away, to keep an even temperament, that not everything is worth a reaction.” She endured and is super proud and excited to be in her second year of college, after attending two elementary schools, three middle schools, and three high schools. “The odds and family history were against me, but the fact is I’m here, and ‘seeing straight’ and ignoring the negative…”

She no longer wants to pursue forensics, switching her major to Dietetics and Nutrition Science. “I didn’t want to be involved in the dark and gloomy all the time. I’ve had enough of that. I love food and I love to cook…and I love helping people, can’t stop doing it, it’s in my blood or something.”

Already engaged in personal training, her current dream is to be an in-house dietician in a gym she opens up with her brother in NYC. She’s passionate about turning her story into wholistic encouragement for others, and doesn’t shy away from the vulnerability of the details.

“I’m an open book sharing these things. You don’t know what people are going through, People can be very private, and you never know who’s on the other side of the screen reading it and you can maybe be the difference between life and death for them.” 

“Sometimes in NYC, your skin needs to be tough. I’ve been through a lot, and it wasn’t all pretty, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Your past can help you shape your future. It’s made me such a strong person.”

Her strength shows itself everyday in the hospitality she shows the guests at 144 Fulton Street, a job that has surprised her since day one.

“I felt kindness and love in the interview process, something you wouldn’t expect from managers. Working here for these past months, I see and feel how much people care about me as an individual, it makes me feel really good. And they’ve been so understanding with some of my health problems. I’ve never had a job that cared about me like CFA, makes me never want to leave.”

Recently she met an older gentleman in line who was having a difficult time deciding what to order. She read him each item off the menu and together they “built a meal.” He made small talk about the beautiful weather and she guided him up to the rooftop terrace to enjoy the sunshine. Impressed with the menu and the hospitality, he vowed to return the next day. 

“I never wake up where I’m like ‘Ugh, I gotta work today.’ Every day I wake up ready to make people feel happy. I want every guest who comes here to feel how I feel working here. I’m happy working here and I want them to be happy when they eat here. When I’m serving, it doesn’t feel like I’m working, it feels like I’m doing things for the greater good. It feels like family.”

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A Jester in the Kitchen

Jonathan Puello has no problem telling you he was a total class clown as a kid. Making his classmates laugh by acting out brought him more satisfaction than listening to teachers. He was so known for his antics that during a party when he was eleven, he almost drowned when everyone thought he was goofing off rather than genuinely struggling for air.

A huge fan of superstar Tracy McGrady, Puello dreamed of playing basketball in the NBA, but wasn’t allowed to play on his high school team because of disciplinary issues, most stemming from his clowning nature. 

As he he grew older, his free spirit led to a series of “dumb decisions” as he sought money for nice things, particularly cars. The choices led to consequences, and he spent the last five years in prison, incarcerated for his involvement with drugs and burglary.

While there, he learned patience, and shares that he knows more than ever how to “enjoy the little things, taking walks in the park or just opening the refrigerator door. It’s a little thing, but you appreciate it.”

There were tough moments, like the emotional visits from his mom, but the constant support from his family and friends helped him endure. Puello never brings up those experiences in conversations, and while they shaped him, they don’t define him. If he could go back and talk to his younger self during that time, he’d give himself the classic warning: “It’s not worth it, you may get the nice stuff, but it can be taken away in an instant.”

He started his transition back into regular life this past January, and not long into that process he found out Chick-fil-A Fulton Street was hiring its grand opening team. His social worker got him into the Group Audition where he heard the operator Luke’s story. It impacted him that though Luke owned a franchise, he’d started as a Team Member. “It made me think that maybe I could do it too.”

It seemed like a perfect chance to begin again and rebuild his dreams. “I was a little nervous, but then I got an interview…and it was with Mandy, which made me even more nervous, like great, it’s the boss’s wife, I really need to impress her.”

Mandy remembers the interview well. “He was nervous,” she says, “visibly shaken and very cautious with his words. He spoke from the heart about his family, and was extremely humble. It was a heart connection that I had with Jonathan. I think he wanted a job so badly, but because of his past didn’t think he deserved a second chance. When I called to offer him the job, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind I made the right decision. He was so thankful. No one has ever thanked me for offering a job before. To see how far Jonathan has come in a few months from that interview makes me so proud. He’s a more confident and hopeful person.”

Examining where he is now and where he could be, there’s a pride in knowing that his journey is in a healthy place. “I’m growing and learning more every day. I’ve become an advanced team member, and certified trainer, but it’s so much more than that. It’s been surprising to be this far along since January. I gave something my all and it paid off.”

In five years, he’d like to have completed his bachelor’s degree, and would love to be married and have kids. His sights are also set on becoming an owner and operator with Chick-fil-A, preferably opening a restaurant in a brand new market. “I’m interested in going international. Maybe Dubai or Spain. If I got there, that would mean I’ve come so far from where I was, with both education and leadership.”

He’s actively working on his leadership skills and style, trying to balance the fun with firm consistency. The class clown still lives deep in him, and he loves to cut up with the Team. He’s passionate about making sure the food goes out fast and correct, but wants to make sure there’s joy and spontaneity among the Team Members.

“I find the most satisfaction when everyone is happy and smiling, everything is running smooth, just a good state of mind with everyone in the kitchen.”

Puello is quick to mention that the guidance of Austin Haydel, who he considers a mentor, has been huge in his development. “He’s given me opportunities, kept pushing me and continues to push me. He’s training me in so many ways, telling me what books to read, how to be a great leader.” He also mentions directors Thomas Haralson and Jeremiah King as two leaders that work side by side with him as they train in all aspects of the business.

“From my experience, the leaders really care and want you to grow, and give you opportunities to grow. They’re willing to sit down with you for hours and talk, to work through challenges with you to find solutions.”

Working through challenges to find solutions has been Puello’s heartbeat these past six months, and the class clown who used to chase things the wrong way is enjoying the benefits of these hard-won opportunities.

He smirks, “I still love nice cars, that didn’t change, I just changed how I’m getting them.” 

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What it Takes to Own the World

Late in her elementary school years, Rakhel Perkins remembers passing notes with a friend as a boring substitute teacher taught the class. The friend wrote some profanity on the note and when the teacher came back and searched her desk, it was her who was reprimanded for the foul language. She remained quiet and endured the discipline, informing her parents about it later that night.

“I was too timid to tell the teacher it wasn’t mine. My mom asked me ‘why would you carry someone else’s blame?’ I’m a person of confidence now…but back then I didn’t speak up.”

The Team Members of 144 Fulton Street would have a hard time believing the radiant “Rocky” who joyfully holds down the line in the kitchen was once a shy girl unable to speak up in front of others.

She grew up in the diversity and vibrance of Brooklyn, with a dental hygienist as a dad, and a mom actively involved in multiple projects in their community as she served on the city board. Rocky’s first job was a junior counselor for a new non-profit helping kids after school. They met in a basement and paid her fifty bucks a week. She helped them out five straight years, helping them grow into a highly successful organization. 

At sixteen, she worked for Macy’s for $7.25 an hour, and eventually quit school to work there, “valuing money more than education.” She lied to her mom that she was going to school, leaving every day at seven am and coming home after four. 

Her path took her through multiple jobs, many of them in the food industry, and while she enjoyed some of the experiences, others were short-lived and frustrating. After quitting work at a recent job, she wanted a change and moved to North Carolina. But after a month, she hopped on a bus and headed back to the city, without even packing her clothes. “I was going through a rough patch before I got hired here. I hit a downward spiral; I wanted to own the world but didn't know how.” 

She struggled with a deep tiredness, and bouts of depression, but eventually knew she had to get back in the game. Applying for jobs through multiple platforms, she met Austin Haydel at a Fulton Street Group Audition for candidates interested working at Chick-fil-A.

“He spoke about giving everything for something you believed in, and then giving a little bit more, because we all have a little bit more in us.” She left the interview “feeling so good and so different. I’ve always been the one that made the job better, no job had ever touched me…I researched the brand more, and discovered everyone loved it.”

She’d been considering going to school for medical billing and nursing, after working hard to earn her GED, but the experience at that audition hooked her in. Through the interview process, Rocky met another director, Connor Chaffin, who had come to NYC with Luke, and she heard his story. When he hired her, he shared his excitement at being a part of her journey.

His interest in her story and development was the first taste of what the culture at Fulton Street would be like. “It’s nice to be in an environment where people give back, too…like there’s always water you can take from the well of Rocky, but it’s so great here having folks putting buckets back in. If I miss one day here, people are asking the next day where I’ve been.”

Through all her ups and downs, Rocky has maintained a broad spectrum of hopes and interests, with dreams of performing one day. She often participates in local open mic nights to sing or share her poetry, or support other artists. “Nobody would recognize me on stage…I love writing, but I love singing, too.”

She pictures where her future could be five years from now, and pauses before sharing, “I could totally have gone famous. I started wanting to be a journalist, then an english teacher, to an art teacher…or I could be a producer, songwriter, standup comedian, full-time poet, maybe a nurse…"

She views her time at Fulton Street as a meaningful part of those dreams, dreams that go beyond bright lights and applause. “My personal mission is to leave something good; I love to impact lives. When I walk away, I want people to be marked by me. I just love helping them. I’m getting insanely great practice here. I’ve never had a job that gave me this much in so little time.”

Rocky is also an anchor of Fulton Street’s growing local catering business, one of the first Team Members entrusted with representing the famous Chick-fil-A brand of hospitality and great food in the marketplaces of lower Manhattan.

It’s a part of her job she delights in, meeting people in the offices, and sharing their first-time Chick-fil-A experiences. “I ask the new guests to eat the sandwich in front of me, I love watching them become happy when they eat our food.”

What do you want people to walk away with when they hear your story?

“They don’t have to walk away inspired, but there’s no point that you can’t recover from. It’s in you, you can do it, maybe a little bit of ‘if she can…I can…’”

As she continues to look less and less like that timid school girl, she more and more resembles the Rocky that could one day own the world. “I’m learning to believe in myself, take pride in myself, taking myself for who I am, but still being open to improvements. Having confidence changes your life. You can pick yourself up after being tattered and not find your fight. I found my fight.”

“Finding your fight means you can have so many avenues. There’s so many options here at Chick-fil-A, like paying for college. It’s so much bigger than chicken.”

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Hope Finds a Home

At the age of fifteen, Austin Haydel lived in his car.

He’d grown up in the public eye, in a tiny Louisiana church where his grandfather pastored, his grandma led worship, mom played piano, and dad directed the Sunday School. A constant tension bubbled under the surface of their family as they sought to maintain a certain public image while ignoring and hiding the problems in their home.

His parents separated on and off, and they shuffled between houses, dealing with the post-Katrina landscape, and the effects of gambling and bankruptcy. Through it all, Austin says, “no one ever acknowledged things head-on and dealt with them.”

When they found themselves finally under the same roof again, the pressure in their family exploded. The conflict ended with Austin, standing in his boxers and a ripped T-shirt, screaming at his parents, and them yelling back at him to leave.

At first, he coasted between the homes of friends for a place to stay, switching locations when the parents started to suspect something. But after sneaking back to his house, he drove off in a new portable home, his 2004 Toyota Corolla, which went by the name Rolla because he’d removed the C and the O.

He slept in the backseat, parked at Wal-Marts or public schools. After a year of hopping around homeless in his sedan, he accepted the invitation of a good friend, whose mom welcomed him in and made him feel like family.

He filled his time with sports, multiple jobs, and leading worship at a local church. But behind his busy public persona, he led a secret life, selling whatever substances he could flip for profit. The kind of hypocrisy he’d hated as a kid had become his own pattern of survival.

A series of athletic injuries and discoveries by the church tore down the world he’d built for himself. “I gained weight and felt isolated from everyone. I got depressed. I became apathetic and started abusing drugs by myself.”

Austin remembers the breaking point, late in the spring of his senior year, when he served as a groomsmen in a wedding and needed to enter a church building. “I went feeling betrayed. That Sunday was Easter, and the preacher spoke of those who knew things but never experienced them in their heart.”

Flooded by waves of memories, from near death experiences to moments of provision and protection, Austin broke down weeping. “I reflected on how good I’d had it…and how much time I’d wasted.”

The breakthrough in his heart and with God didn’t make his life suddenly better or perfect. He soon after lost his car, and his job, and bounced around again from guest bed to guest bed. But through the benevolence of others, mainly rural churches, he found himself in a meaningful internship in Memphis, Tennessee.

The irony of being frustrated with little fake churches but being saved by them is not lost on him. “I don’t know if I’d be alive if those little churches hadn’t given.”

The internship led to other jobs and opportunities that shaped and matured him, just in time to move back to Hammond, Louisiana and get serious about his eventual wife, Taylor. He started working construction, and also landed a salaried position with a leading sports store chain.

A fellow manager from the store invited Austin one morning to a free biscuit promotion at the local Chick-fil-A. The leaders at the restaurant tried to recruit him, as they raved about working under their operator, Luke Cook.

Luke remembers their first meeting well. “I walked into the interview and realized this guy was the deep V t-shirt wearing dude that was showing up the week before for the free breakfast everyday at our restaurant!” That first impression changed as they worked side by side. “Austin was the one who transformed my perspective about what the next generation of young talent could do in leadership.”

After Luke pitched a vision of growth to him, Austin left his salaried job for $9.50 an hour to work at the Hammond restaurant…right before he married Taylor. It seemed like a step backwards, especially when he started in the kitchen six a.m. to four p.m., Monday through Saturday.

Nine months later he quit.

He threw himself into construction jobs and electrical work, seeking out ministry jobs for the cash. Overworked and frustrated, he wrote out a long text to Luke asking about the possibility of returning to Chick-fil-A…but he never got to send it.

Luke called at that exact moment to ask if he’d consider coming back. They discussed a plan for his future, and two years later he stepped into the role of Executive People Director.

Austin and Luke’s relationship blossomed into something rare, both a fruitful business partnership and a meaningful friendship. 

“Any business owner on the face of the planet would love to have a guy like Austin at their side leading an organization. I’m better because of what he has invested in our business and the friend he has been to me,” says Luke.

Austin wrestles with the words to describe what their journey together has meant to him.      “To be partnered with someone that thinks about people and business the way he does makes everything worth it. There’s not a person besides my wife who’s had a bigger influence on my life than Luke Cook, from the way I work, to the way I’m a father and a husband, he’s so much more than a boss.”

A few years later, the duo embarked on a path of trust and risk together, leaving their successful restaurant in Louisiana to tackle the largest Chick-fil-A ever, down in the heart of Manhattan.

But the two men don’t just discuss business moves together, they share the big personal decisions, too. When asked what accomplishment at this stage of life that he’s most proud of, Austin talks about adopting his oldest son, Colston. 

“We started the foster care process, and it was going to be temporary. He was three. Shaved head, holding a Woody doll, twenty-five pounds and screaming about how much he hated us.”

They went everywhere together, including their Chick-fil-A, bonding deeply as Austin sought to counsel him through his tendencies. Colston’s mom disappeared, so he and Taylor needed to make a decision. “Most people encouraged us to put him back in the system…but Luke encouraged me to keep loving on the kid.”

In June 2016, their son Shephard was born and Colston ran in and claimed him as his own, and called Taylor mom for the first time. That moment changed them and brought them together tight as a family. In December of 2017, Colston’s adoption was finally official.

That’s always been Austin’s dream. To bring change. To fix things.

“I want to be a person who’s known for caring when I don’t have to, creating change for good. That’s why I love Chick-fil-A, I can do that while I’m in it. Everyday when I walk through NYC, I think about everything I’ve experienced, I look around and see these people who have experienced so many things and keep going. Our Team Members inspire me, I want to be there for them, the hope that I can make a difference in them.”

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The Strength of a Smile

Before they clock in, many Team Members at 144 Fulton Street begin their shift by visiting the cold prep area where the salads and wraps are made. The restaurant is five levels, and down on the bottom, on the floor called The Cellar, GiGi Rodriguez waits to greet them with a smile as she washes the day’s produce. Some even walk back among the fruit cups and boxes of lemons to receive a warm hug.

While the smile she shares is genuine, it’s also hard-earned; for beneath the joy is a strength forged by trials.

Her parents met in NYC after arriving separately from Puerto Rico, and raised their family in the heart of the Bronx. Her mom placed a heavy emphasis on work, because it was “the key to getting what you wanted,” so a young GiGi started her first job in the housing projects, cleaning and taking out garbage, or painting playgrounds and fences.

Growing up in a generation absent of social media and video games, kids in her neighborhood passed time by playing kick the can, hopscotch, and freeze tag. In middle school, other students bullied her because she was tiny. “I looked like I belonged in elementary school, made me an easy target…but it didn’t intimidate me, it shaped me, made me stronger.”

GiGi washes dishes as she answers questions, Team Members passing by, showering her with love and encouragement. She waits until they leave, grins slightly, and wipes the sweat from her brow with her forearm, and gently enters into the part of her story she hadn’t intended to share…

“Basically, I had a rough life…I was married when I was nineteen, had three young boys…my husband was not a good man.”

During a time when domestic violence was more whispered about than talked about, GiGi raised her children while enduring abuse at his hands, living in fear that if she ever left, he’d chase her down. The breaking point came on her birthday, after a celebration with co-workers. Her husband discovered she’d been out with friends, and angrily drove to her company looking for her. “That was the final sign. I got out that day.”

But her relief was only temporary. “He found where I was hiding. I lost my job, and my house. Police moved me from shelter to shelter. They wanted to change my identity, but I said no.”

GiGi's escape journeyed through Massachusetts, New Jersey, and down to her beloved Puerto Rico. By her perseverance, those three young boys became three young men, and a sister, and she raised them to adulthood in NYC.

"I call them my 'Amazing Four.' I taught them to respect women and people, that even when you’re angry, you treat people right. And my sons treat their wives like queens." Even though her sons and daughter have blessed marriages, "they still need to call mom to talk." She has one grandchild already, and another on the way, and also found a healthy relationship herself the past two years, a relationship full of respect, trust, and love. 

The transformation that took her from a woman who “used to walk looking over my shoulder” to the person who radiates confidence and peace from her station in The Cellar is reflected in the word choice she uses when speaking of domestic violence. “We used to be called victims. But we’re not victims, we’re survivors.”

After she and her family eventually settled, she sought out fellow survivors, to encourage them. “I’m not proud of that time in my life, but in another way I’m glad I can share my story to help others. I try to volunteer at shelters at least twice a month. I sit and listen to their stories, makes me feel like I’m the lucky one, to cheer them on, take them to lunch, give them hope: ‘I did it with 3 little kids.’”

That’s also why GiGi loves loves serving at Chick-fil-A, because it provides her “the opportunity to lift others up.” Her energy flows from encouraging the current generation to persevere.

“There’s some great kids in the world, we need to cheer them on! That makes me happy…I could be having a miserable day, but I’m going to stop and encourage any of these young people who I see who might be sad. It’s truly like a family, even though we can get tense with each other, we love each other hard. It’s tough work, but rewarding. I look forward to it, I get up, and though I’m tired sometimes, I look forward to my job. Everybody takes the time to get to know you…even the directors.”

She’s also fiercely loyal to her prep station and never wants to leave, finding joy even in cutting the lettuce. “I love food, it’s my passion. I’ll go to an international food market, I let the food talk to me. When I make a salad or a wrap, I put my heart and soul in it. When a guest tastes it, I want them to sense the love.”

What does she think people should know about Chick-fil-A? 

“It’s so good! They need to come! It’s all fresh, come experience it! Especially Cow Appreciation Day!” And what does she want people to walk away with when they hear the story of GiGi?

"I don't want pity. I want them to know I'm a survivor."

She's more than a survivor, she's a hero who represents the best of Chick-fil-A, and the heart of the 144.

(If you'd like to donate to survivors of domestic violence, or you need someone to share your story with, GiGi recommends clicking here)

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A Future Full of Stars

In Nigerian culture, the firstborn grandchild is called the “ada,” a name that carries both honor and increased expectations. The summer of her third grade year, Nkechi Nwagbara learned firsthand what it meant to be the ada of her family.

When the school year ended, she had friends and fun on her mind. But a visit from her Nigerian grandma instructed her on the priorities of the ada: work now, play later. She reminded Nkechi that she set the example for the family. So instead of running around playgrounds and laughing around pools, Nkechi dove into books and summer projects for the upcoming school year.

Most third graders would wallow in self-pity at the unfairness of the universe. But not Nkechi: she embraced the lessons of her grandma, the mantel of the ada, and the desires of a young kid. The next summer she worked hard and finished her entire summer reading list early so she could enjoy the break with her friends. "I learned that you need to know when to have fun and when to be responsible and do what you’re supposed to," she says.

Although she takes the firstborn grandchild responsibilities of her Nigerian heritage seriously, she's also half Jamaican, and says with a smile that she's "more infused" with her Jamaican side. She describes her family as loving and open, and her childhood always had a sharp focus on education.

Her pivotal years were spent in Texas, where her strong desire to do her best was cultivated. "It used to be just me, and I would go outside and lie in the grass and look at the stars. I want my kids to have that experience." She wants to provide that life for them, "that they won't feel like they're missing out."

When asked what career she dreamed about so that her kids could grow up under a sky of stars, she doesn't hesitate with her answer. "A doctor. A lot of African people encourage their children to be doctors and lawyers. My Jamaican side was more 'follow your heart' but my hairdresser passions got shut down," she laughs. 

She moved with her mother from Texas to NYC in 2001, experiencing the upheaval and ”shift in energy” in the city due to  the attacks on 9/11.  Her mom became her hero, instilling in Nkechi an independence that she's proud of. "Despite the little we had, she made it work. We weren't 100% comfortable, but we were happy."

Rooted in the diversity of her Brooklyn neighborhood, she developed a desire to help people and invest in specific communities. That passion, coupled with her interest in science and her childhood experiences, led her on a path away from medical doctors and court room lawyers, and into the realm of Speech Pathology. 

"I stuttered very badly as a child, and I still remember a speech pathologist who built my confidence as a kid. I was able to see communication in a new light, and I want to help kids like I was helped."

With that goal in mind, Nkechi applied the lessons of her younger years and proudly graduated this June with an Associates in Liberal Arts. The accomplishment brings her great joy because she had to persevere through a dark time of debt, including a time of confusion about her direction and education. She eventually transferred to a community college, finishing in two years...and made both the Dean's List and Honor Society.

She's currently researching schools in the southeast in order to earn a degree in Communication & Science Disorders so that she can work in deaf communities, hoping to travel around and invest wherever she finds folks in need. 

As she plans for that next season, she also serves at the front counter at Chick-fil-A Fulton Street, where she's constantly learning lessons she knows will help her start her own practice in the future. "It's opened my eyes to the business side of things, and humbled me...with the screens red, and guests being frustrated or urgent, just learning how to show enthusiasm and love when that happens." 

At her old job she hated cleaning up. But at 144 Fulton Street, there's a whole new viewpoint on why it’s important. She wants to "do it right and 'get in the corners' knowing I’ll need to do it one day on my own in my own home and business."

She really appreciates the way Team Members are encouraged to pursue their dreams. The leaders are "very supportive of our TMs, even if we don’t stay, you open the window for us, creating an environment where we’re encouraged to be what we want to be."

What do you think others should know about Chick-fil-A?

"We are a very loving culture. I love how we communicate with our guests and the way we go above and beyond. I love that our directors are hands-on, sweeping, wiping down tables, bagging, and I love working with directors rather than for directors... it makes it a family atmosphere, where we value relationships with guests in and out of restaurant."

And what do you want people to walk away with when they hear the story of Nkechi?

"Do not give up, and to have hope. No matter how dark things get, keep going."

Some would call that advice keeping your eyes on the stars...

 Nkechi on the rooftop terrace at 144 Fulton St

Nkechi on the rooftop terrace at 144 Fulton St

Being Human is Giving Back

Living in a "less than ideal" situation in Atlanta at the age of sixteen, Dominique Carter started a job at a local Chick-fil-A. His shift manager often offered him truck rides to and from work, and the two developed a friendship on those trips, discussing life and engaging in conversations about professionalism and excellence.

One day the manager took him aside to share how to compartmentalize what he was experiencing outside the restaurant, in order to be present in the moment. Dominique remembers it as a turning point in his perspective, where he began to establish a "pillar of expectations" in his life, both for what he demands of a restaurant shift and what he expects of himself.

Raised by his adoptive mom, who nurtured 53 children via foster care and adoption, Dominique grew up in the Brownsville community of Brooklyn, shaped by its unique challenges and melting-pot-diversity. As a child, he wanted to grow up to be a lawyer with a red sports car and a fast motorcycle, but he most desired to help people. One of his earliest childhood memories, during a time when a little money was needed to go a long way, Dominique spent his Christmas cash on a bag of clementine oranges that he handed out to workers at his local grocery store.

"I really value philanthropy. To give back is intrinsically to be human," he says.

His dedication to helping others grew during his time in Atlanta. Besides working for Chick-fil-A, he served as an advocate for youth in foster care, and at the age of 16, was invited to the governor's mansion because of his active support for extending healthcare for foster children until they reached the age of 21. "I was an advocate before I could even tie a tie," he laughs.

Dominique's sacrifice and commitment continued to shine as he eventually served the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative (JCYOI) Foster Children's Foundation, becoming both a board member and a traveling speaker for them. During that time he wrote a personal check to donate to their organization, but a fellow board member tried to refuse it, knowing Dominique traveled around on a moped, rather than his dreamed about motorcycle. (He does share that the moped was highway legal...and he had the governor removed so that he could regularly speed past surprised motorists.)

He went on to be the first of his mom's extensive family to earn his degree, in International Business, even though he never expected to go to college. And after his journey wandered through Philly and Atlanta, he arrived again to New York.

Being back in the city was a homecoming for him in multiple ways. Exhausted from what he experienced in many restaurant situations, "people more concerned with cup inventory than employee well-being," he wanted to work in the Chick-fil-A culture of hospitality again. As he began the application process to some of the midtown restaurants, he needed a reference from his former shift manager...

But his old boss and mentor refused to give him a reference. "If you're going to work at a NYC Chick-fil-A, you're going to work for me," said the manager with a smile, who happened to be Luke Cook, the operator of the Chick-fil-A at 144 Fulton St. Their Chick-fil-A journeys started together in Atlanta and now joyously reunited in Dominique's hometown. They both appreciate how far they've come from the fledgling shift manager and the wide-eyed teenager who chatted about expectations in truck rides home from work.

"It's no coincidence that we all arrived back here in NYC together: me, Luke, and Chick-fil-A."

Eleven years later, and thirteen hours away from Atlanta, as we sit on the rooftop terrace of our restaurant, we laugh that he never landed that red sports car, but he does wear a sporty red shirt everyday. And as he works again at a Chick-fil-A, he's still applying those same lessons of expectations and attention to detail he learned from Luke back in Georgia. 

When asked about his current expectations, he smiles and ponders the question with his trademark thoughtfulness. "It's such a cliche, but I do want to improve every day...in all aspects, overall well-being: physical, mental, financial responsibility." He's specifically been working on reading more, especially leadership books, and his ultimate dreams include creating a global plan to help at-risk youth and communities. But he is cautious of "feel good projects,"  keeping an experienced eye on "creating sustainable systems that help people" in the long term.

He does point out that his transition into adulthood has reinforced what it takes to maintain his passion for serving others.

"I've been alive for 27 years, but I finally feel like I’ve just started living." He pauses again. "You can’t thrive when you’re in survival mode. You can’t help others when you’re just trying to float.  I see how easy it is to become complacent." He knows that with no parents or teachers around, the absence of outside authority figures makes it easy to coast. "How bad do you want it? If excellence is the expectation, you gotta work at that, it requires effort."

To maintain all his commitments, Dominique stays deeply rooted in his faith, and enjoys  fashion and writing poetry, with a goal to have a spoken word finished by the end of the year. 

What does he think others should know about Chick-fil-A?

"Refills are free, even in NY," he laughs. "It's one of the few places that really walk the talk. From an employment perspective, you really get what they promise. And they really do want to put the guest first. People should know, Chick-fil-A isn’t so insulated that it can’t see other people’s viewpoints and perspectives, other people’s lifestyles, it’s a misconception that we only have one kind of employee or one kind of guest."

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