1964 S. Truett Cathy invented the sandwich that has become as synonymous with Atlanta as Coca-Cola: a hand-breaded chicken breast stuffed in a soft buttered bun and garnished with a couple of pickle chips. He sold it for less than a buck at his Dwarf House in Hapeville, a place so small it had only 10 stools and four tables. The first Chick-fil-A restaurant arrived in 1967, and today the College Park–based fast-chicken giant boasts more than 2,000 outposts across the country. Last year it reported sales of more than $6 billion.
Still privately owned by the staunchly Southern Baptist Cathy family, Chick-fil-A has never opened on Sundays. In 2012 it drew the ire of gay rights supporters when Dan T. Cathy, Truett’s son, declared his opposition to same-sex marriage, a decision that he later called a “mistake.” Then word got out that Chick-fil-A’s WinShape Foundation was quietly funding anti-gay causes.
Like many people of conscience, I boycotted the brand for a couple of years but have softened of late for one simple reason: that sandwich. Plucking it out of the familiar foil pouch, I like to dip it in mayonnaise squeezed from the little packets available at the condiment counter. Then it is perfect.
Until just recently, however, I had no clue that Chick-fil-A owns two concept restaurants that serve completely different fare: Truett’s Pizza Cafe and Truett’s Luau. The family-style pizza joint and the Hawaiian-themed establishment (Chick-fil-Aloha, everybody!) are both in Fayetteville, both closed on Sundays (no shocker there), and both late-in-life pet projects of the entrepreneurial company founder. (The company also operates the famed Dwarf House and the 1950s diner-themed Truett’s Grill, both of which offer the regular Chick-fil-A menu, plus a few special items.) [Editor’s note: Truett’s Pizza Cafe permanently closed in February 2019.]
Set on a busy corner anchored by a cascading, amusement park–worthy waterfall, the Luau opened in 2013, just a year before S. Truett Cathy died at 93. Some company managers thought the billionaire was joking when he first broached the idea. (“He’s a serial wacko thinker,” Dan once said of his dad.) A video on the Luau website shows the aging patriarch, topped by his signature fedora, inspecting the construction site while his diminutive wife, Jeannette, dances the hula and bobs her white coiffure like Queen Elizabeth. (She died in 2015.)
While the Luau offers the signature sandwich, waffle fries, sweet tea, and lemonade—there’s even a drive-thru—the sit-down, kitsch-filled dining room is the real draw. Go for the novelty factor and take Grandma. She’ll love the greeters in Hawaiian shirts: They’ll let her strum a ukulele. They’ll talk up the fish tacos and the Hawaiian burger, embellished with bacon, Colby Jack cheese, and ring of fresh pineapple. They’ll giggle over the alligator head stuffed with butter mints. After a while, crocodile—get it? (Truett contributed the reptile and many other doodads among the decor.)
Order the Lava Rocks if you dare (fried wontons stuffed with chicken, blue cheese, bacon, and mushrooms, served with a side of cloying mango salsa) or the Kalua Pork Plate. The Hawaiian ’cue, standard-issue chopped pork in a tangy sauce with a side of nondescript jasmine rice, is no threat to the definitive version I devoured on the Big Island a couple of years ago. The best thing on the plate is the coleslaw, crunchy and peppery. There’s healthy grilled mahi mahi on udon noodles and artery-clogging Loco Moco. Traditionally a scoop of rice topped with a burger, fried egg, and brown gravy, Truett’s Loco Moco is available Southern style: The gravy is white and peppered, and you may substitute sausage or bacon for the beef. (Did teetotaling Truett know Loco Moco is an Aloha State hangover cure?) Desserts include a chocolate lava cake with vanilla soft serve; a white chocolate and macadamia nut cookie served in a cute little iron skillet; and the Ono-Ono Cake, three fat yellow layers with pineapple and coconut frosting.
Just two miles away, Truett’s Pizza Cafe, which opened in 2008, is decorated with toy cars in honor of Truett’s love of classic automobiles. (He collected everything from a 1916 Model T to a Batmobile.) The pizza parlor doesn’t sell his celebrated sandwich, but it sure does perch a lot of bird on its pies, from lemon pepper and teriyaki chicken to chicken Parm and chicken Alfredo. The Legacy, topped with fried chicken, sliced pickles, and mozzarella, is an homage to the classic sammy. If you’re weirded out by pickles on pizza, better to go with the generous, thin-crust versions of the Meat Lover (pepperoni, sausage, bacon, ham, and mozzarella) or the Cinco de Mayo (grilled chicken, bacon, green peppers, mozzarella, and crushed tortilla chips atop a puddle of avocado-lime ranch sauce).
Could a Pizza Cafe or Luau be headed to your hood next? The company says no. They are Truett’s follies—nothing more—and will not be replicated outside of Fayetteville.
That’s probably a good thing—because nothing can top that sandwich.