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For five months, passersby in the Barnes Crossing area have watched and waited as one of their favorite restaurants was demolished, then rebuilt.

Chick-fil-A at the Thompson Square shopping center finally reopens May 4, and there are few happier people than Jamey Finley, the operator of the restaurant.

“We’re right on schedule,” said Finley, who opened the location in 1995. “We have an excellent construction company that’s pretty much done, so they finished a little ahead of schedule. We’re just putting the final touches on it.

“We’ve got a little more hiring. We’ve got the majority of our original crew back, so there will be a lot of familiar faces.”

Finley also is hiring another 70 employees, bringing the total to 140 workers when the doors open in a week and a half.

The new restaurant has a slightly smaller footprint than the previous building, and it has shifted to the west. Six extra parking spaces have been added, but the change that’s expected to make the biggest impact is the dual-point ordering drive-thru.

“If you’ll remember, we had double wraps of cars going around the old building at times,” Finley said. “We got it down to where we just made it work. But by moving the building all the way over, we’re now able to queue cars parallel to each other.”

During peak times, employees will take orders by hand as they have in the past. It’s a practice Finley didn’t want to disappear.

“Our employees talk about how they enjoy that interaction, and we wanted to continue that,” he said. “Instead of talking to a box, they can see a smiling face in front of them. Now we’ll be able to do it from two sides, and we anticipate being able to get people through faster. But that’s not what it’s all about for us. We’re looking at an overall customer experience, which is the most important thing to us. Speed is just a part of that.”

The restaurant will be able to more than double the number of drive-thru vehicles it is able to accommodate – up to 32, compared to 12 to 14 previously. About 56 percent of the restaurant’s business came via the drive-thru, and Finley anticipates that to grow to 60 percent or more.

“We also have these new digs on the inside that some people are waiting to see, but if they can’t get in or the parking lot’s full, we’ve made it easy where they know they can park in the Kroger parking lot and walk over.”

The restaurant, while redesigned to allow better traffic flow inside and out, has 26 fewer seats. But the added drive-thru capacity, plus a dedicated carry-out station, will offer the convenience customers are seeking and speed them though, Finley said.

An indoor playground also is included, although Finley had the option to use the space for additional seating instead.

But he said the playground was popular with families, and he didn’t want that taken away.

“It makes a great babysitter. Parents feel really good about our playground,” he said. “It’s a good atmosphere, it’s clean, the kids can’t escape out of the back or anything, and they can keep an eye on them.”

Customers have been eagerly anticipating the reopening of the restaurant, which can’t come soon enough for some.

“Chick-fil-A is one of my favorite fast food places to go to, especially this one at Thompson Square,” said Lauryn Fletcher on the store’s Facebook page. “The staff is always super friendly/nice, and the food is great. I don’t have a single bad memory at this Chick-fil-A. Now I’m just anxiously awaiting the grand opening of the new building.”

Said Shiana Bean, “They are the sweetest, polite and welcoming people. They all have amazing customer service. Never have a bad attitude towards anyone. Always smiling.”

Finley said the family- and community-oriented feel of the restaurant drives business. The average check size is higher than many other locations because more families go there, he said.

And the volume of business is what necessitated a new store. The kitchen was originally designed to handle about $1.5 million in annual sales. Last year, sales topped more than $6.2 million.

“I also have great leadership, great team members, and we just figured out how to do it,” he said. “We’re living with it, we’re happy with it and now we’re blessed to have this new building. We’re just hoping to provide better guest service going forward and better serve our community.”

And that’s the heart of Finley’s operation.

The vision statement at his Chick-fil-A store sets the tone for the organization, which he says is the real key to success.

“Our vision is to love our guests, love our community and love each other,” he said. “Any tools we can have or any processes we can come up with to allow us to do that better, that’s what we want to do. That hasn’t changed since day one.”

Finley was able to keep 70 of the original employees during the project. Others had to find other jobs, which is understandable. But to keep as much of the team intact, Finley worked with the CFA in the mall to get his employees working there and to receive additional training, and he also sent his team of managers across the country to help with other store openings.

It’s that kind of unwavering commitment to his employees and his customers that have helped Finley earn five Symbol of Success Awards and a Champions Club Award over the years from Chick-fil-A. Those awards are the company’s most prestigious honors that recognize operators’ growth and success within the company.

An early taste

Finley’s restaurant career began in the 1980s when he worked at Taco Hut on Industrial Road in Tupelo. It’s where he developed his interest, learning the ins and outs of restaurant management.

“I’ve been in the restaurant business for 40 years now, and I got my start while I was in college,” he said.

He moved to Tupelo in 1980 and began working for Taco Hut. The restaurant opened a location in Oxford, and when he went to Ole Miss, he operated that restaurant before returning to Tupelo in 1984.

Four years later, Finley was looking to run his own restaurant, researching companies and seeing how their franchises worked.

Chick-fil-A was one that captured his attention.

“I had a friend of mine tell me about it, and then in 1989, I heard about this place called The Mall at Barnes Crossing that was being developed,” Finley said.

“They said, ‘funny you should say that, because we’re looking at the area right now,’” Finley recalled. “It was just perfect timing and God’s sovereignty that put us together, and we were able to open that unit in 1990.”

He opened the Thompson Square location in 1995 and was operating both locations until 1997, when he offered to have CFA “buy back” the mall store and allow another operator, Justin Flowers, to run it.

But Finley has since picked up licensee agreements for Chick-fil-A at Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

“It’s been a great marriage between me, the franchisee and Chick-fil-A, the franchisor,” Finley said. “I couldn’t be happier.

“Their world view and their commitment to giving fell in line with mine,” he added. “It’s a marriage where our values aligned perfectly.”

The new building is a significant financial investment, but one that Finley didn’t have to pay for directly out of pocket.

That kind of agreement doesn’t work for everybody, but Finley said it’s worked quite well, especially when it came to building a new store.

“It made it a lot more economical for me and less of a financial burden,” he said.

Other restaurant chains’ franchise agreements vary, and franchisees pay smaller monthly fees. But other restaurants require higher startup costs and higher net worth and liquid asset requirements.

For Chick-fil-A operators, it’s a tradeoff they think is worthwhile. Chick-fil-A receives about 20,000 applications per year for the right to operate a franchise, but it only selects 70 to 80.

The right people

Finley grew up on a farm and is no stranger to hard work. He earned a degree in hospitality management, and that farming background helped him become a successful restaurateur.

“I just have a knack for it I guess,” he said. “But the main thing I’ve done isn’t my talent. If there’s anything I can take credit for, it’s hiring the right people.”

Finley is often asked how he trains his employees to be so friendly and competent, but he says he can’t take credit – or blame – for employees’ attitudes and aptitudes.

“I don’t train them – I hire friendly and competent people,” he said. “It’s like a racehorse. You give them a track and just let them run and let them do what they do.”

One important aspect of working for Finley at Chick-fil-A is answering a simple question: “What are you doing to serve the community?”

“It’s a very important question, if not the most important question,” he said. “Then I ask why they do it. If their eyes light up when they talk about serving people, and they have a history that shows they’re not doing it for mom or dad or doing it for school to earn credit, but they’re doing it because they love to do it, then you’ve got the person you want to hire. That’s been our secret to our success. It’s finding that person with that DNA.

“If you have a good racehorse you want to put it on the track, and the jockey just holds on. You don’t see many donkeys on the racetrack. We want to hire the thoroughbreds who want and like to serve the public, and it’s a part of their nature.”