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.”