Jeremiah Cillpam's path to deep-fried success began, serendipitously enough, with a drunken water balloon toss and an act of chivalry. Nearly a decade later, the 28 year-old is one of Chick-fil-A's youngest and most successful owner/operators, having overseen not one, not two, but three of the chain's highly coveted franchises. That includes the high-profile and eagerly anticipated location in Hollywood, set to open next Thursday, September 22nd.
It was the fall of 2002 when Cillpam saw a friend of his waiting outside a nightclub because she was too young to be allowed inside. After a passing miscreant nailed her with a water balloon, Cillpam chased him down, dragged him back and made him apologize to her. The girl's father, it turns out, was a good friend of Chick-fil-A owner Dan Cathy, who was so impressed with Cillpam's behavior, he invited the college student to the chain's yearly franchisee summit.
The week-long event, held that year in Orlando, included a trip to Disneyworld, a private audience with Shamu, a performance by the Blue Man Group and plenty of business seminars and motivational speakers.
“I got to see the best of Chick-fil-A as a 20-year-old,” says Cillpam. “I was the least important person out of the 2,500 people there, but Dan Cathy invited me to have dinner with him and his family. That was my introduction to Chick-fil-A, and I knew from that moment that I wanted to be an owner.”
In December of 2004, the first freestanding Chick-fil-A opened in South Florida. Cillpam was hired as a team member and worked there until he graduated from Palm Beach Atlantic University. He then took a job with the company, helping open new Chick-fil-A locations. Living out of hotel rooms and suitcases, he traveled up and down California for 18 months, a period he describes as an extended interview to become a Chick-fil-A franchisee.
Rumor has it that each year Chick-fil-A receives upwards of 20,000 applications for roughly 90 spots. “They're very selective because the applicant pool is extremely large, and the number of applicants is really small,” Cillpam says. “I joke that it's like being in the less than 1% club.” If the odds of becoming a Chick-fil-A franchisee are less than 1%, then the odds of being a three-time Chick-fil-A franchisee are infinitesimal.
In January of 2008, Cillpam took over a franchise in a mall in Boynton Beach, Florida. After successfully managing that locale, he moved to Los Angeles in 2009 and began planning for the city's first Chick-fil-A. Located near USC, it opened just over a year ago, in August of 2010. Shortly after, Cillpam headed to Hollywood to oversee the latest Chick-fil-A location. He is finally done moving, he says. “This is where I'm going to spend the rest of my life because, honestly, I love this city. I love Hollywood.”
Growing up, Cillpam admits, he was no fanatic about the chain. “Chick-fil-A was just another restaurant. I was like, 'What's the difference between Chick-fil-A and Wendy's or any other restaurant?' But we were still becoming who we are. It's nothing like it is today.”
What's so different about the brand now? “I think it's offering a great quality product. You cannot duplicate our chicken sandwich. Our competitors have tried and failed.”
Legions of fans agree. Even the backlash to its deeply conservative values — every Chick-fil-A is closed on Sunday, and it has donated food to organizations that are vehemently opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage — has been tepid and hasn't dampened fans' ardor.
When asked about the controversy, Cillpam elides the issue like a public relations pro, issuing the standard company patter about its commitment to customer service. Basically, Chick-fil-A will keep upholding its conservative Christian beliefs, but every customer will be treated politely and served the same, delicious sandwich.
“There's a planned protest that's coming [with the opening],” Cillpam says. “We're expecting it. We're working with the local police, but we'd love it for everybody, even our protesters, to come in and experience our world class hospitality and have one of our chicken sandwiches.” That's the taste of profit.