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    How a Former IBM Tech Lead Secured Two Chick-fil-A Franchises

    In this week's Workstream webinar, we are joined by one of the top performing Chick-fil-A franchisee, Jimmer Szatkowski. Jimmer has a very special background after being in technology for 15 years before moving to become the Chick-fil-A Cicero Owner and Operator. In this Q&A session, he unravels his journey to being a franchise owner and how he hires the top talents to help his business to succeed.

    Read on for the full transcript:

    Table of Contents:

    1. Transition from Tech to Chick-fil-A
    2. Being a Franchise Owner Operator
    3. Training Leaders and Employees
    4. Owning Multiple Chick-fil-As
    5. Hiring and Interviewing Applicants
    6. Pay Rates at Chick-fil-A
    7. Employee Retention
    8. Sourcing for Candidates



    Transition from Tech to Chick-fil-A

    (00:00 -04:46)

    Lydia: Today we're joined by Jimmer Szatkowski, a Chick-fil-A franchisee based in upstate New York. Jimmer, welcome thank you so much for joining us. I'd love to just kick it off by learning a little bit more about your career history - switching from tech to Chick-fil-A, I'd love for you to take me through that and what brought you to Chick-fil-A.

    Jimmer: Yeah, I certainly did not think I was going to end up being a Chick-fil-A owner operator that's for sure. I got my MBA from Clarkson University and got hired by IBM shortly thereafter. I had a colleague that I was in grad school with that had a connection there and got me into IBM. I actually spent 20 years with IBM which I know in the tech world, it's like a lifetime. I was largely in supply chain transformation and it was a great run. Very interesting company to work for, I got to spend four years living in Mainland China and leading teams all over the world. But what happened for me was, as I continued to grow and mature, although I was having a ton of professional success, I wasn't feeling really deeply gratified with what I was doing. And so my last stop with IBM was in research triangle park in Raleigh North Carolina and I fell in love with Chick-fil-A first there as a guest. I had not experienced it growing up in upstate New York but living in North Carolina, it's kind of a big deal there and so I got pretty excited about Chick-fil-A as a guest. Eventually, a guy who worked for me at IBM left to go work for Chick-fil-A in their corporate headquarters in Atlanta Georgia and we stayed in touch and eventually he planted the seed in my mind and so that started me on the journey to becoming a Chick-fil-A operator. I am not a career Chick-fil-A guy, I'm actually more so a career tech guy.

    Lydia: That's awesome my younger sister's actually in the research triangle right now and she's a big Chick-fil-A fan. I grew up where there weren't that many in the northeast and now it seems like they're everywhere. So when you were making the switch, were you like I'm definitely going to Chick-fil-A or were you exploring other things?

    Jimmer: It definitely was not a situation where it was like I absolutely want to be a Chick-fil-A owner. What happened for me first is, I was standing in the kitchen and turned to my wife and said I don't want to work at IBM. I knew that but I didn't know what's next and so I quickly put in an expression of interest to become a Chick-fil-A owner which started a very long selection process. But the odds of becoming a Chick-fil-A operator are so low. Last year, we had 80,000 people express interest and we only open about 120 restaurants a year so you can do the math, the odds aren't great. Chick-fil-A reminds you every step through the selection process to not put all your eggs in this basket kind, so I kept exploring. I looked at some other businesses, both franchises and non-franchises. I also looked at going to work for other companies and I came very close to joining you guys in Northern California and working for Facebook, but ultimately what happened was the further I went through the selection process and really started to understand what my life might look like as a Chick-fil-A operator, I started having this deep feeling man this might be what I really want to do with the second half of my professional life, to use a Chick-fil-A restaurant to positively influence people and so they selected me and here I am two and a half years later.

    Being a Franchise Owner Operator

    (04:47 - 12:07)

    Q: How can you become a franchise owner, what's the process once you become an owner operator?

    Jimmer: The process of becoming a Chick-fil-A operator starts with an expression of interest so anyone can go online and do that and that kicks off what can be a multi-year process. Chick-fil-A is super intentional about everything - how we make the food, what we put on the menu, who we select to be our operators, who we select to work at our restaurants. That is very clear when you go through the franchisee selection process, there's some front-end part of the evaluation. That's some of the typical stuff you provide, some financial information, some information about your experience, but then it quickly shifts into a set of interviews, some through video, some face-to-face, some experiential where you actually go out to a Chick-fil-A restaurant, where they're really trying to get to know you deeply as a person. It was unlike any other interview process I had ever been through and I had interviewed a lot of people at IBM and I had interviewed for a lot of jobs inside and outside of IBM but it always felt like either the person I was interviewing or when I was interviewing, you're trying to win the interview right, you want the job. What I quickly realized at Chick-fil-A was that's not what it was about, it was about them and you trying to figure out whether this was the right partnership and so it takes time. Once you become a Chick-fil-A franchisee, it's a very unique franchise model, it's not for everybody. I have my own business, the only thing that business quote-unquote owns is the "right to operate this restaurant" and it's not technically an asset in that when I choose to end my career as a Chick-fil-A operator, I step away and Chick-fil-A passes on that right to somebody else. So in many ways, I'm just a steward but the other side of the call it franchisee equation is very different in that I did not have to make a significant financial investment and I'm given particularly super generous in terms of the financial arrangement so it's not for everybody. To be honest, if you're like a pure entrepreneur, it's probably not a great fit in that you're trying to grow a business and then sell a business but if it's more for the way of life and what you want to do with your life, I think it's a great thing. 

    Q: Does it (the franchise business) stay in the family when you retire?

    Jimmer: No, not necessarily. I have a 20 year old daughter, 17 year old son and an 11 year old that spend a lot of time here and they work here and some of them, sometimes fall in love with it. I'm sure if they were to apply to be a Chick-fil-A operator or if I were to retire and they were to be ready, Chick-fil-A would give them a lot of consideration but it's not a guaranteed thing.

    Q: How much guidance does Chick-fil-A provide for first-time owners?

    Jimmer: I am what they refer to as an external candidate, so I had basically no practical experience whatsoever other than waiting on tables when I was in college. So for somebody like me, after you're selected, you go through about a six or seven week training process that it's a combination of at the Chick-fil-A headquarters, as well as out in a restaurant. When you open your restaurant, Chick-fil-A sends a grand opening team where you've got some trainers and some supervisors to help you but after what is a very quick three week period, you're kind of on your own. I say you're on your own but you always have Chick-fil-A there alongside you because you are business partners but you got to figure it out so I think they prepare you as much as you can be prepared but a lot of it is just learning on the fly and and that's what's fun about it too. As a Chick-fil-A franchisee, I have a lot of autonomy in terms of who I hire, how I reward and recognize them, how I retain them how I compensate them and so I get a lot of autonomy in terms of how I execute my business here locally.

    Q: You're the business owner, you're coming in, you're opening a new location, how many months are you foregoing a paycheck as you're getting this up and going and going through the whole Chick-fil-A training process? 

    Jimmer: That really depends. Chick-fil-A is pretty sensitive to that so they know you need to start making some money, so generally speaking, we'd like people to be opening their restaurants certainly within six months of going through training. In my case it was actually a little bit less than that so it was about four months. Unfortunately, in the real world, construction projects delay and things happen and I have heard stories for people that it took longer but it should in all likelihood, it's going to be at least several months where you're getting ready for the store to open and you're not cashing a profit check, and it is a profit check because i am not an employee of Chick-fil-A, I'm an independent business owner.

    Training Leaders and Employees

    (12:08 - 19:46)

    Q: Can you provide details about this prescriptive service training for leaders and employees? 

    Jimmer: Each Chick-fil-A operator gets to decide how they want to do that and so in the case of my restaurant, soon to be two restaurants, for the average team member non-leader, when they come in on the front-end before they ever are physically working in the restaurant, they get about four hours of upfront training that is really all centered around culture. Some of the basic processes in the restaurant, some of the basic expectations and so we invest a lot upfront. Really centered around cultural training and really trying to acclimate them into the Chick-fil-A business and then from there every single team member gets 12 hours of on-the-job training but they are not by themselves so they're not independent. They get a trainer side by side with them for 12 hours before we make the decision to allow them to operate independently so that's largely how we handle your average team member. For leaders, it's much more intense and so I invest very significantly in leadership development and training. Just some examples, I have a John Maxwell consultant that comes in and hosts leadership development sessions, in addition to that I pay him to have one-to-one coaching select sessions with some of my most high potential leaders. Chick-fil-A has a lot of resources at headquarters where I actually fly some of our leaders down there to get more in-depth training in leadership and certain elements of the business like growing sales or improving guest experience and so what I would say is compared to others in our industry, we invest multiple times more than probably they do in terms of training our people and then investing in our leaders.

    Q: What customer service training takes place? Each Chick-fil-A I've gone to has had some of the most courteous people with positive attitudes. 

    Jimmer: As a Chick-fil-A operator, I get a lot of largely positive comments about customer service and the guest experience at the restaurant. I think what might be really super surprising for most is we actually don't talk about customer service a lot at Chick-fil-A. What we talk about and it's fundamental to how and who we hire, is we talk about treating people with intentional kindness right and what we mean by that is if you work here, the expectation is every human being you come in contact with whether it's a teammate or certainly if it's a guest that's blessing us with your business, it's a recognition that in every interaction you have with another person you have a unique opportunity to shine some light into their life and if you take advantage of that opportunity and on some level get to know their story or make a connection, then you're taking advantage of that opportunity. I would argue right that intentional kindness is something that's much deeper than customer service and so when we meet with people that we're considering bringing into the business whether they're team members or potential leaders, we actually don't spend a ton of time talking to them about their work experience. What we're trying to assess is, are they already trying to be remarkable in some other part of their life. Whether they help take care of an elderly parent or they're a high performing like high school or college athlete, are they already trying to be remarkable in some part of their life and do they already have a heart to serve other people. We try to assess that by getting to know their story. I personally as the owner of this business, I am the final interview of every single person who works here and what I do is, I get to know their story and usually when I do that, through their story they reveal in some way shape or form whether they're already being remarkable in some part of their life and if they already have a heart for service and that I can't train. I think fundamentally that's where it comes from. It doesn't come from we do some quote unquote "customer service training" in terms of some of our language of hospitality but that's like the nuts and bolts that's not where the magic is.

    Q: I actually heard from a few other Chick-fil-A owners, some of them do an undercover boss thing where they regularly go through their own drive-throughs just to see how the customer service is. Do you do anything like that just to sort of like you know keep your finger on the poles?

    Jimmer: All the time. I order the food and I don't say it's for me and I look at the food and I taste the food. So yes, we are literally obsessed with guest experience and I don't use that word lightly. We try to look at everything through the lens of the guest, how are they experiencing our food, how are they experiencing our people, how quick is our drive-through, how can we shave seconds off of those drive-through processes and so yeah I personally am assessing the team and assessing our product. 

    Owning Multiple Chick-fil-As

    (19:47 - 23:14)

    Q: Can you be the owner of one or more restaurants? 

    Jimmer: We have about 2,300 restaurants globally about 1,700 or 1,800 of us operators have one restaurant, a few hundred have two and there's just a handful that have three and that's a usually unique circumstance and a super exceptional operator. That's a real important design point because the expectation as a Chick-fil-A operator is that you are an active business owner, the people who work at your restaurant, the guests that you serve, you're connected in the community and that kind of thing and so I would listen. I was blessed to become a Chick-fil-A operator and have one restaurant and shortly after a couple of years, Chick-fil-A came to me and informed me of plans to open a second restaurant not terribly far from my restaurant and invited me to be considered. I described the arduous selection process to get one, what I would say is the second one although it doesn't take as long, it's certainly as intense and so the first thing is you get invited to provide feedback on some insights to your the current business you have through a written form and then they come up and they visit your restaurant on two separate occasions with escalating levels of management. They spend a solid day at your restaurant getting to know your team, they spend time with your leaders to understand what kind of leadership capacity you've built in the restaurant and whether you can replicate that in a second location, they eat the food, they order the food and they sit and they pull the bun off and they ask you what do you think of this chicken flavor, do you see anything that could be better and you have a half an hour dialogue about the food that's being served at the restaurant. It's that attention to detail that we strive for. Is is the folding on that beautiful white aluminum package crisp and are there any markings on the outside of the package then you drive to the new location and you have a conversation about you what are your plans for impacting that community through your business and so I just went through that process and in January I got the great news that I was awarded a second franchise and we're gearing up for that now and we're planning to open the second restaurant in the spring of next year. 

    Hiring and Interviewing Applicants

    (23:15 - 26:07)

    Q: How long is your interview process, how many people does each applicant meet with? 

    Jimmer: So the interview process for a standard team member typically involves three separate interviews, there's a phone interview - initial screening, then they come in and they meet with the Director of People and Culture who spends typically like a half an hour with them and and really ask them some probably hard-hitting questions for a fast food restaurant. The bar for them to go from that interview to me that I've set for that person is if you were a Chick-fil-A owner, would you absolutely hire that person? If they're sending them to me, they're saying this is somebody that I think we should absolutely hire and then I spend probably 20 to 30 minutes with every person that may become part of the team. Typically if they've made it that far, they make it through me but there are absolutely times where through that dialogue I see something or hear something that I just don't think would click with how we're trying to do things. With a leadership candidate, it's much more extensive so certainly there's the phone screen, certainly there's the interview with the Director of People and Culture but if we're bringing somebody in here with the clear intention of them being a leader, they actually meet with every senior leader in the restaurant and right now I have six of them. They would come in and spend probably 30 minutes with each of them and then ultimately, we'd have them come in and have like a three-hour experiential afternoon where they come in and work alongside the team and that's more about just seeing how they interact with others and it's more about the interpersonal piece of it that typically takes multiple weeks for a leadership candidate.

    Pay Rates at Chick-fil-A

    (26:08 - 28:53)

    Q: What's the average number of hourly and salary management positions, and the pay rate at a restaurant? 

    Jimmer: The average number of people really varies wildly based on volume and my current restaurant is one of the busiest Chick-fil-A's in the country. We have 2,300 restaurants, through August we were the 70th busiest Chick-fil-A in the country and so we have typically about 100 people working here and that can depend on how many full-time versus part-time you have and so in that hundred we probably have 35-ish full-time people and 65 part-time people. In terms of pay structure so and again this is one of the cool things about being a Chick-fil-A operator, I decide this for my restaurant. In New York state, we have some very fair and generous minimum wage rates. We're trying to bring wages up to a level that people can actually have a livable wage and so typically I'd say 70% of my folks make minimum wage, so high schoolers at our restaurant are making $13.75/hour, which I think is very reasonable for the cost of living here in upstate New York and then it scales up from there. The senior leaders in my restaurant are compensated very well and it's a combination of hourly wage, a super generous profit sharing program, a super generous 401k and then all the bells and whistles vacation. We have chaplain services here for people like mental health services and I try to overpay people because I want to keep them, they're talented people - pay them substantially more than they probably deserve.

    Employee Retention

    (28:54 - 30:58)

    Q: What would you say is the number one driver in reducing turnover and improving employee engagement? 

    Jimmer: If I gave this answer to people at IBM when I worked there, they wouldn't believe me and they would think how would you measure that, how would you get ROI on that. I think the most important thing is that the people who work for me feel deeply cared for on a very human level and yes I compensate them well and we invest in them but the amount of time that me personally and my leadership team spend really trying to get to know everyone who works here, understand their point A and point B in life, where do they where do they want to go and how we can help them get there and we have a very diverse team. Everybody's point A and point B is different and diverse on every single level right and for a high school student that A and B might be going to college and might be buying a car. For some people, it might be getting off welfare for others it might be buying a house and so we invest in a ton of time really trying to get to know each individual who works here and try and help them in any way that we can getting them from point A to point B and I think at the end of the day that's why people stay. They feel loved.

    Sourcing for Candidates

    (30:59 - 36:48)

    Q: Where do you find your superstars? So between referral programs, online job boards, walk-ins via the store posters, where do you find the best applicants?

    Jimmer: Early on it was all over the place. I wouldn't say it was completely random but there was a little bit of the practicality of okay we're opening a restaurant in two months and we need to hire 130 people so you draw from multiple channels and you know the odds of success are not what you would like them to be. Since that time, we've been so intentional about the culture that we're creating and growing the people that live out that culture and letting go of people that don't. What has happened over time is it's actually very rare now that I hire someone that doesn't have some degree of connection to somebody else who works here and that can be as close as I've got a superstar and their sister just turned 16, I literally have a family where five of the six siblings work at this restaurant or I go to church with so and so, or I play on this sports team with so and so. I would say largely my superstars come through referrals now. With that said, we still find a fair amount through traditional channels the job boards and so on but we have to work a lot harder to find great ones there and the odds of success for those types of candidates tend to be lower than the odds of success through a referral.

    Q: What is your ratio of applicants versus hires?

    Jimmer: This is an estimate off the top of my head.  I would say here in this particular labor market we might only hire one in 20 (5%). Now a lot of that is really filtered out on the front. Just as an example, if you don't demonstrate any effort filling out the online application, the likelihood you're going to even get a phone call is super super low unless there's some other compelling thing in there that we see that causes us to call you. It's probably one in 20 at best. 

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    Lydia Fayal

    Lydia Fayal Hall is Head of Marketing at Workstream. She previously held leadership roles at OneSignal and Chalkup, acquired by Microsoft. Lydia has written for publications including The Wall Street Journal and Forbes. She is an alum of UPenn, Johns Hopkins, and YCombinator IK12. Originally from Stonington, CT, Lydia now resides in San Francisco, CA with her Australian Shepherd, Indy.

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