- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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Many bowl sponsorships aren't cheap and there are plenty of companies who seem fine with just having their name on them, doing little to use it to try to pick up new customers.
That can't be said for chicken brand Chick fil-A, which has sponsored the former Peach Bowl in Atlanta since 1998.
Throughout game day on Monday, the company will employ 20 people inside its famous "Eat Mor Chikin" cows in and around the parade and stadium. They'll hand out 5,000 bags to tailgaters with four of the restaurant's famous sandwiches and a six pack of coke in each one. And for those that don't get the product for free? They can buy it.
Over the course of Monday night's game between LSU and Clemson, Chick fil-A concessionaires, going up and down the aisles, will sell about 25,000 of the company's sandwiches. If you don't get the message, there will be a mini cow in the 72,000 cup holders at the game as well.
In preparation for the game, I sat down with the man who helps make the business tick, Steve Robinson, the company's executive vice president of marketing.
Darren Rovell: I've only seen you invest in college football. Do you sponsor any other sports?
Steve Robinson: Actually we don't. We spend most of our media on the cow campaign in our top 30 markets, but college football is the only sport we invest in nationally.
Rovell: Why college football?
Robinson: The demographics are just right for us. People in the 18-54 range, a split of men and women equally (though obviously skewing a little bit more male). College football fans also tend to have higher income and eat at fast casual and casual places, which is where we fall.
Rovell: So you spend so much on college football, but people have a hard time finding Chick fil-A at games. Why?
Robinson: We are located on over 200 campuses nationwide, where we license our brand. But the stars often don't align for the stadium deals because the people we license Chick fil-A to often aren't the same concessionaire running things at the stadium. We have a bunch of deals, but to work hard to get them in stadiums for six or seven Saturdays really isn't worth it for us.
Rovell: I love your activation during the game, not the least of which dropping 4,500 cows in parachutes from the ceiling before the game starts.
Robinson: The funny thing about that is that after the game when they clean up, no one has ever found an extra cow lying around. People have to take them.
Rovell: You have 20 cows running around at one time. That has to be some sort of record for number of the same corporate mascot in a general area.
Robinson: You know, cows go in herds, so we had to bring a lot of them. We want to create as many opportunities as possible to interact with fans, take photos and get our brand out there.
Rovell: Les Miles is a spokesman of a competitor, Raising Cane's. Is that an issue that LSU is playing in your game?
Robinson: We've only been treated with class. We're thrilled to have LSU and Les, who said earlier this week that he's an overall chicken fan, which is good for us.
Rovell: There's also a slight issue with the other team. Clemson coach Dabo Sweeney lost a recruit named Cassanova McKinzy to Auburn last year because he said there wasn't a Chick fil-A on campus.
Robinson: Dabo isn't mad at us. He should be mad at the host or hostess who showed that recruit around because, while there isn't a store on campus, there's a store that's pretty close. [Auburn has two on campus Chick fil-A's.] I actually sent a note to then-Auburn coach Gene Chizik that said, "Glad we could help your recruiting."
Rovell: Aside from this game and kickoff game you sponsor, I know you and Chick fil-A are deeply involved in moving the College Football Hall of Fame from South Bend, Ind., to Atlanta, where you will break ground Monday. Why the investment of time and money to bring the museum here?
Robinson: I'm the chairman of the local board and Chick fil-A is a significant investor, along with other sponsors like AT&T, Coca-Cola and Under Armour. We'll break ground and have the museum open for the Fall of 2014. We think it is a tremendous attraction with a good location -- right out in front of the World Congress Center on the western edge of the Olympic Park.
Rovell: We've all heard stories about attendance at these type of sport museums declining, and some unrealistic expectations set, most notably the new NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte. How well supported will this be from the start?
Robinson: We've projected a very conservative number of 500,000 fans a year, and with that, we'll be able to spin off a profit. So it's a sustainable economic attraction.
Rovell: Will it have a Chick fil-A in it?
Robinson: Yes. In between the attractions and the parking deck.
Rovell: Let's drill down more into Chick fil-A's business. I've heard this will be the company's 45th year of consecutive growth.
Robinson: We'll be up 14.5 percent in total sales and over 7 percent in same store sales.
Rovell: That's a huge number, especially as same store comparable sales at McDonald's are actually declining. I'm curious: What percentage of orders include your original chicken sandwich?
Robinson: About 45 to 50 percent do.
Rovell: And what percentage of your business is drive-thru?
Robinson: Fifty to 60 percent, depending on location and obviously a higher percentage during breakfast. We're building more and more drive-thrus at our stores and there's nothing we do today that doesn't have two lanes.
Rovell: Breakdown of sales per hour?
Robinson: We do about $7 to $8 per person and some stores are doing $2,000 per hour. The more highly trafficked stores can do 120 to 140 cars per lane per hour.
Rovell: I follow your business quite closely. I know you were testing sweet potato fries. What happened there?
Robinson: I personally love them but it comes down to fryer capacity. We just don't have enough fryer units to do regular fries and sweet potatoes. We'd have to retrofit our stores with more units and another fryer vent hood. So we're shelving it for now.
Rovell: Chick fil-A was embroiled in a controversy in July, when the president, Dan Cathy, said the company was "guilty as charged" in reference to supporting the biblical definition of family. It upset a lot of people and caused quite a stir among the gay community.
Robinson: You have to understand that that's Dan's personal beliefs. I'm not sure why people acted shocked. It falls in line with his faith. We're closed on Sundays. We give a lot of money for scholarships and we've never been found to discriminate against any employee in any action adjudicated against us. What's the big surprise? There's belief in traditional marriage. But he's not anti-anybody, this business is not anti-anybody.
Rovell: Did the controversy affect sales?
Robinson: Our national awareness number was the highest it has ever been. The percentage of customers that were new customers was the highest it was in four to five years. So people came out and tried Chick fil-A, and I hope that when they did, they discovered that it wasn't the same company that they thought they read about.
Rovell: How do you become a franchisee of Chick fil-A? I know it's highly competitive.
Robinson: You apply, and if we pick you, we make all the investment. We find the site, we build the store, we put the first inventory in. You pay us $5,000. We then give it to you, an independent contractor who is considered by state laws a franchisee. They pay us a royalty off the top; it's higher than other franchisee royalties because we take the risk. They take their employees' salaries and expenses out and we share the profit 50-50.
Rovell: Is it true that no Chick fil-A has ever closed?
Robinson: We've closed maybe 10 to 12 stores, and we're starting to take a couple free-standing stores that are older and moving them because the neighborhood has changed.
Rovell: How many stores do you have today?
Robinson: 1,680 stores. We'll do about $4.5 billion in sales (up from $4 billion in 2011) and our average street store will do $3.4 million this year.
Rovell: A firm called PrivCo estimated that Chick fil-A loses about $47.5 million a year from not being open on Sunday. True?
Robinson: We've actually never calculated and don't care because it's a non-starter for us. We never have been open on Sundays and never will be.