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Chick-fil-A's waffle fries were introduced in 1985, according to the company's "menu over time" wall at its Atlanta headquarters.

A look at the history and process behind Chick-fil-A’s menu introductions

Chick-fil-A’s support center features a ‘menu over time’ wall showcasing introductions throughout the decades. Those introductions picked up significantly as the company started accelerating its growth.

Chick-fil-A is removing its side salad from the menu. A Facebook user in Georgia broke the news, which has since been confirmed by the company. In a note shared on social media, Chick-fil-A states: “Spring is here, and we are taking the opportunity to refresh our menu. One of the changes is a farewell to our side salad beginning April 3. We want to continue providing you the quality food and service you’ve come to expect, so we’ve had to make some hard choices about what we continue to offer on our menu.”

The company added that it’s “always innovating” and is working on new menu items. Of course, menu ebbs and flows are part of the restaurant business. Taco Bell, Wendy’s and KFC have all recently dropped and added menu items as well, for example. For Chick-fil-A, however, the menu hasn’t experienced many changes until fairly recently.  

Chick-fil-A’s Atlanta headquarters includes a “menu over time" wall showcasing menu additions throughout the company’s 77-year history. In the early days of the company, the menu cadence was simple as the concept was just finding its footing. In its first decade, the 1940s, the roots of the company were planted with Founder Truett Cathy's Dwarf Grill, serving Icedream (soft serve ice cream) and iced tea. The signature chicken sandwich came along in 1964, three years before the first branded Chick-fil-A opened in a mall food court and marking the only introduction that decade. Its lemonade was introduced in 1977.

The innovation wheel started to pick up a little in the 1980s, when Chick-fil-A introduced nuggets (’82), chicken noodle soup (’82), waffle potato fries (’85), a chicken biscuit (’86), a kid’s meal (’87), and the grilled chicken sandwich, hash browns and salads (’89). Uncoincidentally, the company's headquarters opened in 1984, offering up support for more menu innovations. Notably, Chick-fil-A's first freestanding restaurant also opened this decade, in 1986.

In the 1990s, things slowed again, with just three introductions during that decade – the grilled chicken club sandwich, the catering menu and Chick-n-Strips.

The 2000s brought more introductions, starting with the Grilled Chicken Cool Wrap in 2001. In 2004, the chain added fruit cups, Chick-n-Minis, breakfast burritos, and the chicken, egg and cheese bagel. Hand-spun milkshakes were added in 2006 and, in 2007, Chick-fil-A introduced its first seasonal flavor and kid’s meal beverages. In 2006, Chick-fil-A surpassed $2 billion in systemwide sales. 

Then 2010 hit and the chain ramped up its growth and its menu rollouts. From 2010 to 2020, Chick-fil-A's introductions included: 

  • 2010: the spicy chicken sandwich
  • 2011: the spicy chicken biscuit
  • 2012: seasonal chicken tortilla soup and the chocolate chunk cookie
  • 2013: the grilled market salad
  • 2014: Thrive Farmers’ Coffee – hot and iced – and the grilled nuggets
  • 2015: frosted lemonade, the chilled grilled chicken sub sandwich, and Greek yogurt parfait
  • 2016: Superfood side, Spicy Southwest Salad, frosted coffee, and the egg white grill
  • 2017: the seasonal smokehouse BBQ bacon sandwich, seasonal watermelon mint lemonade, hash brown scramble bowl and burrito, and the gluten-free bun
  • 2018: the Frosted Sunrise and the seasonal white peach tea lemonade
  • 2019: the seasonal frosted key lime and seasonal strawberry passion tea lemonade, macaroni and cheese, and the seasonal frosted caramel coffee

During a recent tour of the company’s headquarters, Leslie Neslage, director of menu and packaging and Chick-fil-A, said the decade's uptick was driven by both operators and customers.

“This was a big growth period for us and as we’ve grown, more of our operators started telling us we needed to play in more spaces, while more customers started asking operators for more innovations,” she said.

For context, Chick-fil-A opened its 1,500 restaurant in 2010 and now has over 2,700 restaurants in 47 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and Canada.

The company has continued that swift cadence so far this decade, despite the pandemic. In 2020, for instance, Chick-fil-A introduced the kale crunch side, a chicken parmesan meal kit, seasonal mango passion tea lemonade, bottled sauces, a chocolate fudge brownie, and a seasonal mocha cream cold brew. In 2021, the company added seasonal grilled spicy chicken deluxe, the seasonal lemon kale Caesar salad and the Chick-fil-A SunJoy beverage. And, last year, Chick-fil-A added the seasonal Cloudberry SunJoy and seasonal autumn spice milkshake.

This year has also brought some new menu news, courtesy of the company’s cauliflower sandwich test. It’s too early to know whether that sandwich will earn a permanent spot on the menu or on the company’s "menu over time:" wall. But we know the offering is making its way through the company's auditioning process. That process starts with customer research – understanding what the customer wants and the business case for that demand, as Neslage described. From there, it moves through imagine, prototype, validate (or test) and launch phases.

As part of the “imagination” phase, “We look at what would it look like to bring that recipe to life,” Neslage said. From there, the product is worked into the Chick-fil-A kitchen to understand its operational needs. There is an exact replica of every kitchen layout in the system at Chick-fil-A’s support center. This way, the company can ensure that any product introduction works regardless of market, whether it be a double drive-thru restaurant in a suburb, or an airport location.

“Our process is in place to make sure we have the best-in-class products. We want to introduce new flavors and variety. Customers are demanding that, especially coming out of Covid,” Neslage said. “But we’re not going to compromise our quality, service or value.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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