Ed Grisamore

Chicken sandwich pioneer had roots in midstate dairy country

Special to The Telegraph

There is no Chick-fil-A in Eatonton, which doesn’t quite seem right since the man who introduced the chicken sandwich to the world was born here 98 years ago next Thursday.

There is no Zaxby’s either, for that matter. Once upon a time, there was one on the corner by the Walmart, but it closed. That leaves the Tastee Chick and Popeye’s as the only two chicken places in a town where the first three letters — E-A-T — are bound to make you hungry.

The late Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A restaurants, was born in Eatonton on March 14, 1921. Pound-for-pound, Eatonton has produced more famous people than any community in Middle Georgia. Authors Joel Chandler Harris (Uncle Remus) and Alice Walker (“The Color Purple”) were born here. It also is the hometown of Vincent Hancock, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in skeet shooting.

I have to chuckle when I think about the man who built a chicken empire was born in Putnam County, which is known as the “Dairy Capital of Georgia.’’ Maybe that’s why he recruited all those cows to urge folks to “Eat Mor Chikin.’’

Cathy left Eatonton before he started school. One of seven children, his family moved to Atlanta when he was 4 years old. His father sold insurance and his mother ran a boarding house.

During the Depression, he sold bottles of Coca-Cola and had a paper route on Atlanta’s West End to help his family make ends meet. When he was 14, they moved into Techwood Homes, the first federally subsidized housing project in the nation.

After he returned from the Army in 1946, he took out a loan with his brother, Ben, and opened a diner on South Central Avenue in Hapeville. It was known as the Dwarf Grill — later re-named the Dwarf House — because of its diminutive size. The dining area consisted of four tables and 10 stools.

The menu at the Dwarf Grill had everything you might expect from a traditional diner of that era — eggs, waffles, hamburgers, BLTs and apple pie. You could order a grilled tenderloin. A cup of coffee cost a nickel.

Chicken became Cathy’s signature dish in the early 1960s. He cooked it in a skillet, like his mother had taught him, and later developed a method to pressure cook the chicken breasts.

Eventually, he word-played “chicken” and “fillet” and trademarked the name. Four years later, the nation’s first “Chick-fil-A” opened at Greenbriar Mall near East Point. For 23 years, you only could find a Chick-fil-A in a shopping center or mall. (The first free-standing Chick-fil-A didn’t open until 1986.)

I have long claimed most everybody in Macon has a Nu-Way or Fincher’s Barbecue story. Or, at the very least, a Waffle House story. They’re all local dining institutions. Much the same can be said about Chick-fil-A which, incidentally, began offering a “fish fillet” sandwich this past week for Lent.

I once had the opportunity to interview Truett Cathy. I greatly admired the man’s work ethic, philanthropy, compassion for children, spiritual values and moral compass.

Over the years, I also have written plenty of stories about Chick-fil-A. I told the story of a Macon man who had attended grand openings in eight states, a Warner Robins couple who celebrated their wedding anniversary there with a white-tablecloth dinner and another Macon man who once worked at Chick-fil-A and bore such a strong resemblance to the company’s founder he was told he “looked more like Truett Cathy than Truett Cathy looks like Truett Cathy.’’

My sister Sally’s first job was at the Chick-fil-A at Hammond Square in Sandy Springs. She worked there for four years and continued to help with grand openings while a student at Georgia Southern and the University of Georgia.

I never have shared my Uncle Roy Sawyer’s Chick-fil-A story. I didn’t even know about it until his grandson, Andrew, spoke at Roy’s funeral four years ago. He wasn’t really my uncle. I just thought of him that way. He and my mother were first cousins. Just as Cathy would have been 98 years old next week, Roy would have turned 97 last week on March 3.

Roy was an aircraft mechanic for Delta Airlines. Whenever my father boarded an airplane, he always would say he sure hoped Roy Sawyer had been the one to check under the hood. Roy’s wife, Juanita, was a secretary in Delta’s front office. (My mother and father met at Roy and Juanita’s house in College Park in the early 1950s.)

If Roy’s maintenance crew worked overtime on one of the DC-3s, he often felt obligated to provide supper for them. He would call and place an order at the Dwarf Grill, and have food sent over to feed the crew. He and Truett Cathy became friends, and they later attended the same church, First Baptist in Jonesboro, where Cathy taught a Sunday School class for 13-year-old boys for more than 50 years.

Roy had an original menu from the Dwarf Grill, with the date June 10, 1946, stamped on it. Cathy personally gave it to him. It was more than just nostalgia. Cathy had a policy that anyone who brought one of those original menus to Chick-fil-A could eat at those prices. Roy took family members there on more than one occasion, but he never wanted to take advantage of the discount. It was just a neat story to tell … a real conversation piece.

Roy’s son, Tim, said his parents had been to Cathy’s house. And it was a point of pride that his aunt, Eula Atchley, lived in Corbin, Kentucky, where she knew Colonel Harland Sanders, of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.

You might say the family had all the chicken royalty covered.

Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.