Nearly three decades of working as a firefighter would presumably make running a fast food restaurant seem like a breeze, but that has not been the case for former Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department firefighter Larry Everett.
Though the stakes are decidedly lower, Everett says the daily activities of operating Reston’s new Chick-fil-A at North Point Village Center have a similar rhythm to his previous profession.
In both cases, employees must stay alert through stretches of intense action and quieter lulls, and strong communication and interpersonal skills are a necessity.
“It’s really the same energy level,” Everett said.
As a Fairfax County firefighter for more than 29 years, Everett worked his way up to the position of battalion chief, a title he held upon his retirement on Jan. 1, 2015. He served on Virginia Task Force-1’s swift water rescue team in Great Falls and the department’s hazardous materials unit, along with stints in the communications and training divisions.
Now, Everett has returned to serve the Fairfax County community in a different capacity as the operator for Chick-fil-A North Point Village, which held a grand opening on Thursday.
In addition to hosting an overnight party that started on Apr. 4 and ended with the first 100 adults through its doors receiving a year’s supply of free meals, Reston’s newest Chick-fil-A franchise celebrated its grand opening with a book collection drive intended to benefit Aldrin Elementary School’s Aldrin Reads program, which delivers books to children in need in their neighborhoods two times each year.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity to impact a community,” Everett said. “Everybody thinks it’s just a restaurant, but it’s not. It’s a platform. It’s a platform for us to reach into the community and make a difference at whatever level it is.”
For Everett, Chick-fil-A is a family business.
His wife, Andrea, is on board the North Point Village Center franchise as its director of talent and finance, and his interest in the fast food chain was originally sparked by watching his oldest son work at a Brandywine, Md., location as a manager.
Everett says he sometimes visited his son at the Brandywine restaurant, and was impressed by the work ethic and general attitude of the employees he observed while waiting for his son to take a break.
A conversation with the store’s owner validated the firefighter’s initial impression.
“A lot of places are fake. You see it up front, and then if you go behind the scenes, it’s turmoil, it’s anger. Not here,” Everett said. “At Chick-fil-A, it’s even more so what you see up front, kindness, gentleness, love behind the scenes, and I couldn’t believe that, yet they were machines. They worked fast and hard, and they really sought to do their best, so I just fell in love with it.”
Everett started volunteering at his son’s Chick-fil-A in 2010, and eventually, the company hired him as a marketing director, which required nationwide travel to help prepare new franchises for their grand openings as part of his duties.
When the prospect of operating his own store started to seem like a legitimate possibility, Everett announced his retirement from the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.
After taking a year off to travel and spend time with his wife, the now-retired firefighter officially became an operator for the Chick-fil-A in White Marsh Mall, a regional shopping mall in Baltimore, Md.
According to Everett, the success of his team at White Marsh Mall, where he spent two years, is what led Chick-fil-A to select him to open its new location in Reston.
One of the most demanding aspects of transitioning from his career in fire and rescue to the food service industry was adjusting to a new way of dealing with people, both customers and employees, Everett says.
As a battalion chief, Everett oversaw five different stations in a complex organization with roughly 1,400 uniformed employees, so he had plenty of management experience prior to joining Chick-fil-A.
However, running any kind of business, even a franchise that belongs to a larger corporation, brings its own challenges.
For one, a fast-food restaurant like Chick-fil-A likely sees more turnover than what Fairfax County Fire and Rescue experiences, as the typical – perhaps stereotypical – employee is often envisioned as a high school or college student looking to make some money while in school or pursuing a more long-term career.
Everett says that part of his goal as the North Point Village franchise operator is to encourage his employees to not automatically dismiss their work as what he calls a “stepping-stone job.”
“We want to help you achieve your goals,” Everett said. “However, think more broadly about the opportunities that are before you. Getting them to open their eyes to the potential, that’s when they realize, wow, this is much more than just a job, and that’s where you get the commitment.”
However, not everyone sees Chick-fil-A as a community builder.
The company drew criticism in July 2012 when then-president Dan Cathy expressed opposition to same-sex marriage, telling the North Carolina Baptist Biblical Recorder that Chick-fil-A supported “the biblical definition of the family unit,” according to CNN.
The Christian news service Baptist Press’s July 16 version of the story can be seen here: STORY
With the Supreme Court still three years away at that point from legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, Cathy’s comments put the chicken-centered fast food chain at the center of heated political debates, prompting both protests and shows of support.
The company soon released a statement acknowledging that “biblically-based principles” have been foundational to its establishment but saying that it would “leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena,” according to WJLA-ABC7.
Everett says the controversy gave people a “misconception” about Chick-fil-A, noting that the Brandywine location where he worked at the time had multiple openly gay and lesbian employees, including the store’s operator.
“We are in the chicken business. We sell a lot of chicken. We don’t want to get into politics. Unfortunately, we were kind of dragged into the politics,” Everett said. “…But if people were just to come in to talk to us, they’d realize that’s not who we are. We accept all groups of people to work here, and of course, we serve all the guests fairly, without discrimination.”
Political tensions aside, Everett sees North Point Village Center’s Chick-fil-A as an opportunity to give back to Fairfax County as a community.
The franchise had 94 employees as of an orientation session on Mar. 30 with plans to hire at least 100 people overall.
In addition, the grand opening book collection for Aldrin Elementary School, which sits just down the street on Center Harbor Road, marked the start of the restaurant’s efforts to collaborate with local schools and organizations.
“I, Larry Everett, have been given so much by this community, first off, for a great career in the fire department and the community supporting the fire department, and then the opportunity to be the leader of this store, to serve my employees as they serve this community,” Everett said. “It’s just amazing.”