Macon man a double for Chick-fil-A's Truett Cathy

gris@macon.comJanuary 29, 2012 

Elmer Bryant drove his truck to the Macon Mall on the morning of Oct. 30, 2001.

He was wearing his Chick-fil-A shirt and Chick-fil-A cap. His silver name badge was pinned next to his heart. As usual, he was right on time. The early birds could set their clocks by him.

Even though it was the day before Halloween, Elmer wasn’t wearing a mask. And the day might have been like any other Tuesday -- with Elmer busy at the cash register -- had a customer not walked up and reached to shake his hand.

“I really enjoyed your speech last night,” the man said.

Elmer was a bit startled. Speech? What speech? He had been at home in his pajamas, watching “Wheel of Fortune.”

Excuse me, sir, but you’re talking to the semi-retired Elmer Bryant, of Lindsey Drive in Bloomfield, not far from the shores of Rocky Creek.

“I’m sorry,” the man said. “I thought you were Truett Cathy. You look just like him.”

Cathy, the founder and CEO of Chick-fil-A restaurants, had been the keynote speaker the night before at a “Journey of Adoption” banquet at the Macon Coliseum. The event had been sponsored by Covenant Care Services, a Christian adoption agency.

It was the first, but hardly the last, time there would be a case of mistaken identity over the aroma of waffle fries.

Truett Cathy? He was flattered. (At least they didn’t confuse him for one of those cows!)

“Sometimes I would tell people we were brothers,’’ Elmer said, laughing. “A lot of them didn’t know my name. They just called me ‘Mr. Chick-fil-A.’ ”

Elmer is 82 years old. He did not spend his entire career at Chick-fil-A. In fact, it was a second career. He worked for 44 years in aircraft maintenance at Robins Air Force Base. He took a medical retirement after suffering a heart attack in 1995.

After several months of cabin fever, he applied for a job at the Chick-fil-A at the Macon Mall in 1997. There were plenty of advantages. It was indoors, and he wouldn’t have to work at night or on Sundays.

Besides, those delicious chicken sandwiches had always made the mall one of his favorite chomping grounds.

At the time, the restaurant was located upstairs at the west end near Sear’s. Most of the attention was being focused on the other end, where the mall had opened a 40-store, $50-million expansion.

By the next year, the restaurant had relocated downstairs to the food court, where Elmer became as much of a staple as the nuggets.

Hardly a day went by when someone didn’t make some comment about his uncanny resemblance to the iconic company president.

A friend once told Elmer he “looked like Truett Cathy more than Truett Cathy looks like Truett Cathy.”

It was more than just physical resemblance, though. Both are men of devout faith, with strong family values.

Elmer grew up dirt poor in Dooly County, one of six children. His father was a sharecropper. The family only went to town a couple of times a year, when his parents would give the children a nickel to see the picture show in Vienna.

He worked at a bleachery in Griffin during World War II, then returned home to help on the farm when his family moved to Willacoochee and started growing tobacco.

He got married, but it didn’t work out. He found himself a single father raising three children. His son, Rickey Bryant, was deaf.

That is how he met Carmel, his wife of 32 years. She was a single mother with three kids. Her son, Randy Shaw, also was deaf and attended Georgia School for the Deaf in Cave Spring.

By coincidence, Carmel and Elmer joined Mabel White Baptist on the same Sunday -- Jan. 4, 1970 -- and were asked to become co-directors of the deaf ministry by Pastor Jimmy Waters. They were married on Oct. 19, 1979, Elmer’s 50th birthday.

They are in their 42nd year of being in charge of the church’s deaf and hearing-impaired programs.

Although he was a senior citizen before he began working for Chick-fil-A, he did witness a historic day in the company’s history some 30 years earlier in 1967.

In 1946, Cathy sold his car for $4,000, took out a $6,600 loan and opened a restaurant called the Dwarf House in Hapeville, a suburb of Atlanta. Over the years, the chicken sandwich evolved into the best-selling item on the menu. In 1963, he took the words “chicken” and “fillet” and altered them enough to create a new company logo.

Elmer was attending a meeting in Macon, where Cathy was the guest speaker. He announced the paperwork had been completed that day and he was ready to unveil the Chick-fil-A trademark to the world.

“The one thing that impressed me the most about what he said was that Chick-fil-A was never going to be open on Sunday,” Elmer said.

In 1967, Cathy opened the first store at the Greenbriar Mall in Atlanta. (In those salad days, the company only operated in malls and shopping centers. There were no free-standing stores.)

“And I didn’t look anything like him back then,” Elmer said. “I had a full head of brown hair.”

The march of time began to change all that. He considered it an honor to be mentioned in the same breath with Cathy, an incredible entrepreneur and a well-known philanthropist who will be 91 years old in March.

Elmer retired from Chick-fil-A two years ago, at age 80, when the mall location moved farther down Eisenhower Parkway near the corner of Brookhaven Road.

Although he has always admired Cathy from a distance, he never dreamed he would have the opportunity to meet him -- face to almost-identical face.

A group of local operators who had either worked with Elmer or grown to respect him over the years came together to make it happen -- Keith Booth (Galleria Mall), Pat Braski (Warner Robins and Bonaire), Stephen Franklin (Bloomfield), Craig Craddock (Zebulon Road) and Tom Nolan, who is with the corporate offices in Atlanta.

Elmer and Carmel were given a personal tour of the Chick-fil-A headquarters in Atlanta. It was a few days before Christmas, so nobody was sure if Cathy would be in his office.

Suddenly, Cathy appeared, almost larger than life. For Elmer, it was almost like looking in the mirror.

“I was nervous,” Elmer said. “I was happy everything worked out, and I got to meet him. It was a miracle.”

He told Carmel the experience was like “one step below heaven.”

Cathy didn’t mention anything about the two of them being twins separated at birth. But there were grins all around.

And no one could have blamed Carmel if she had double-checked to make sure she was taking home the right guy.

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or gris@macon.com.

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