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Joel Benson is ready to serve 'mor chikin'

Joel Benson displays a Chick-N-Mini he was testing for quality during a family and friends preview of the new southside Chick-Fil-A restaurant. Joel Benson displays a Chick-N-Mini he was testing for quality during a family and friends preview of the new southside Chick-Fil-A restaurant.

At 10:30 on Saturday morning, Joel Benson observes the young people serving customers during a family and friends opening of the new Chick-Fil-A restaurant.

In order to get the newly hired crew cooks, servers and cashiers the practice they need ahead of Tuesday’s grand opening, he invited hundreds of former employees and other friends of Chick-Fil-A to come over for free food.
“I’m friends with most of them through Facebook and different avenues,” he says of the former employees. “We’ve got educators, administrators. Congressman Cawthorn — he’ll be here tonight, coming back in, because he started when he was 14. … We’ve got people from all over. Two of my previous team members are now Chick-Fil-A operators. One’s got two stores in Fort Collins, Colorado, and another one’s got a store in Columbus, Ohio. This community has built this store. Hendersonville shouldn’t have two stores. It’s hard to believe.”
When Chick-Fil-A broke ground last November to build the new store, at 630 Spartanburg Highway in the Southside Square shopping center, Benson boasted that Hendersonville had beaten out many larger cities that wanted a new Chick-Fil-A. He credits his employees — always called team members — and the community for the franchise’s success.
Suggesting that the restaurant’s popularity has a lot to do with Benson’s own management style and marketing savvy draws a “no I in team” kind of response.
“No, no, it’s team that does that,” he says. “I do have a passion for what I do and I love doing this kind of thing but these are the guys that have done it.”
Not that they don’t benefit from Benson looking over their shoulder.
A young server comes up to him and offers him a bag that contains an order he placed. Unwrapping a chicken biscuit, he makes a close inspection of every aspect — color, taste, temperature, texture — giving me a minitour of how quality and attention to detail persuade so many people to “eat mo’ chicken.”
“I look at that biscuit, that looks good,” he says. “It’s got good butter, good coated coverage right there. When I tear it apart, I want to be able to pinch the coater — that coater provides sort of a cover, not only the flavor, that helps keep the heat in, helps keep it moist. You can see the moisture in there. And the biscuit, which we make back there, we handroll these biscuits — you can see the fold where they folded it over, and that’s going to be a good product.”
As of Saturday, he had hired 69 or the 85 full- and part-time employees he needs to run the six-day-a-week operation. To get them game-ready, managers put them through the paces every way they could think of.
“Yesterday we gave away over a thousand entrees around the community just so they could get repetitions,” he says of his rookie crewmembers. “We keep making food even though there’s not customers.

‘We lead with food’

While Chick-Fil-A has been recognized by Newsweek for “the best fast food customer service in America,” Benson emphasizes that what’s inside the bag matters the most.
“We lead with food,” he says. “If we’re not serving great food, people aren’t going to come. Our mission statement is we serve great food, quickly and accurately in a clean and safe environment, with a smile.”
A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, Benson spent most of his childhood in Maryville, Tennessee. He began his career with Chick-fil-A at a Chick-fil-A in the Foothills Mall at age 16. Seven years after earning a bachelor's degree in retail and consumer science from the University of Tennessee in 1994, Benson arrived in Hendersonville to manage a new Chick-fil-A on Chimney Rock Road. A past president of the Henderson County Homeschool Association, Benson has been a leader at Hendersonville First Baptist Church, where he teaches a Sunday school class for young married couples, and is in-demand as a speaker across Western North Carolina. Benson and his wife, Wendy, have six children, and he enjoys skiing, hiking, running and traveling in his free time.
“It was a career move but it’s not for everybody,” he said of his start as a teenager. “We’ve already had some going through the training rotation, it’s like, “Hey, we don’t think this is going to be a good fit for you.’ It’s really important for us because I know what it’s like to love what you do.”
The new store “has tons of design features related to food safety,” he says. It has double drive-thru lanes that can stack a total of 38 cars and it has covered areas where servers hand the food to customers. The new restaurant will have dine-in and drive-thru service. It has an indoor kiddie playground that will open when public health conditions permit.
Although Benson expects the southside store will supplant some customers from the Walmart side of town, he’s sure the town can support both restaurant.

“I think there will be an impact” on the Chimney Rock Road sales, he said. “Miss Bonnie has been with us for 15 years. She’s coming over to this store. She’s got loyal customers that are going to follow her, for sure. That’s intentional. But I think that’s going to be backfilled. We’ll be able to better serve the traveling guests.”
People that try to avoid the congestion of Four Seasons Boulevard will find the new Chick-Fil-A to be convenient.
“I do believe this store will create, for that person that only comes once a month, maybe now that person will come 2-3 times a month,” Benson says. “Or maybe this is their favorite place now because it’s another offering on this side of town.”
Benson laughs when I tell him that an outing to Chick-Fil-A feels like a visit to a restaurant combined with a church social. But he quickly adds that Chick-Fil-A welcomes everyone.
“Our biggest job is to make sure that everybody who walks through the door knows that they’re treated with honor, dignity and respect, because we’ve got a lot of various people here in the community. Different socioeconomic areas, different ethnicities, different faith background, different political views. Right here, everybody’s welcome. Let’s sit down and have a meal together. … These biblical principles — people love being treated with respect. That’s what we’re looking for, people that have a heart to serve.”
What will Joel Benson be doing 10 years from now?
“Still doing this. No question,” he says. “I love this. I can still see me doing this for another 15, 20 years. When you’re working in the area of your passion, where your skills, talents and abilities can intersect, oftentimes the marketplace rewards you for working like that.”

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The new Chick-fil-A Hendersonville, at 640 Spartanburg Highway in the Southside Square shopping center, will be open from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. on grand opening day on Tuesday and from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday after opening day.