What’s it like working 24 hours at Chick-fil-A?

Bon Appétit’s Andrew Knowlton pulled an all-nighter at Hapeville’s Dwarf House
Chick-Fil-A Hapeville Dwarf House
Bon Appétit's Andrew Knowlton worked a 24-hour shift at the Chick-Fil-A Hapeville Dwarf House in November.

Photography by Austin Price

Andrew Knowlton might be the deputy editor for Bon Appétit, whose readers number in the millions. And sure, he gets to travel the U.S. eating whatever he wants. But I do not—not for a second—envy him right now. That’s because Knowlton, an Atlanta native, is currently hooked on working 24-hour shifts at restaurants across the country. Last year he left his New York City office to cook and clean at a Waffle House in Atlanta. He and a crew filmed the whole thing, and it’s one of the more sadomasochistic types of reporting I can imagine. This year’s locale of choice: the original Chick-fil-A Hapeville Dwarf House, which Truett Cathy opened near the Hartsfield-Jackson airport in 1946.

The original Dwarf House is the only Chick-fil-A in the country that never closes. The menu is more involved, with dishes like pancakes and hot browns, and the place even smells different, like a greasy diner. I arrived on site at 7 a.m. last November to meet Knowlton, who had just finished his epic shift. Bleary-eyed and sluggish, Knowlton explained some of the ups and downs of his 24-hour shifts. (Be sure to checkout Bon Appétit’s video, too.)

How many of these super-long shifts can you possibly do?
In three weeks we’re doing Las Vegas. I’m going to work 24 hours at the Venetian, doing room service and working at the buffet [Editor’s Note: Knowlton ended up working at Caesars Palace instead].  And then we’re going to New York’s Chinatown, and I’ll push a dim sum cart around. I’ll deliver food on a bicycle. I think everyone wants to see me get yelled at by a 70-year-old grandfather in Mandarin. We’ve got some other ideas. One idea is selling chestnuts for 24-hours straight in New York City.

Besides sleep, what’s one thing you really want right now?
I want to take these clothes off and shower. Everyone was telling me that you think that you don’t think you smell like Chick-fil-A, but the minute you get home, you realize that you smell like a fried chicken sandwich.

Who is eating here after hours?
That’s interesting. There are three main groups. There are tons of cops and security people, tons of people from the airport, and then you get the club people because, I guess, Stewart Avenue up here has a bunch of strip clubs. So you get some strippers and the men who admire them. You serve all kinds of people. I squeezed lemons for an hour for the fresh lemonade. I made the secret breaded and fried fillets, the nuggets, and the strips.

Do you know the recipe now?
They wouldn’t tell me the propriety spice blend. I met this guy named Ellis, the man in the blue coat down at the very end over there. He’s been coming here for 60 years. He’s 68. For 50 of them, he’s been coming here three to four times a day. This is the fourth time that I’ve seen him since I was here 24 hours ago.

What is he eating? The same thing each time?
He got two grilled cheeses last night at 9. Before that, he had two pancakes and then before that he got a biscuit with some tomatoes on the side. I asked him how much money he’s spent at Chick-fil-A and he said he didn’t want to know. He’s been coming here for 60 years! It’s amazing all the people you meet. People have worked here for 25 years, 35 years. One gentleman has worked here for 41 years.

What’s the weirdest thing you saw?
There’s a guy who works the graveyard shift, which is 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. All he does is juice lemons. That’s all he does with two hands. Eighty pounds of lemons. I worked the drive-thru from 8 to 10 last night, and it’s like a window into somebody’s living room. Half the people are just lounged out. You definitely get the dudes who are just baked out of their minds ordering four biscuits. Most people are nice, but some are just strange. One woman, a mother, got so angry. She asked, “What are the video cameras for?” and I told her that I was doing a documentary about working for 24 hours at Chick-fil-A. She said, “That’s offensive. Why don’t you try to be a mother for 24 hours a day? Do you know what’s that like? I bet your wife is at home right now.”

How was working at Chick-fil-A different from working at Waffle House for 24 hours?
They’re similar in some ways. The vibe is different. The customers are different. People think they can get away with pretty much anything at a Waffle House.

Which was harder, cooking here or cooking at Waffle House?
I think Waffle House because their system of marking their plates with ketchup packets and jelly packets—that’s a whole different language that I’d have to go back to school to learn. Here you have POS system and you have the screens you can read.

How does the packet system at Waffle House work?
The server will stand on their mark and yell the order to the grill operator in the back. They use this language: drop, pull, mark. Drop means hash browns, pull is whatever meat, and mark means you mark your plate. There are three plates and based on if it’s a platter, a side, or a sandwich—if I put a ketchup packet at 6 o’clock upside down, that means it’s a bacon, egg, and cheese. But I put it 9 o’clock right side up, that’s a cheeseburger deluxe. I will never understand it. I have the manual and sometimes when I’m feeling like I’ve got too much ego, I’ll just pull that out.

Pick One: Waffle House or Chick-fil-A
Oh, man. I can’t. That’s impossible. I would pick Waffle House after midnight, and Chick-fil-A in the afternoon.

I’ve got some quick-fire Atlanta questions for you. Favorite restaurant from your youth that’s still open?
Houston’s on Lenox road. I went there for my freshman prom and got the spinach artichoke dip and the cheeseburger, and then I went a couple of [trips back], and it was just as good. That’s the best hospitality. They’ve got a great system. The lighting is the sexiest in the city.

Best Atlanta food memory?
Right at the corner of Buford [Highway] and Clairmont there used to be an Italian restaurant called Ernie’s. They did this baked fettuccine alfredo. I would never be able to finish it all, and this one guy would then make a swan out of aluminum foil that he’d put it in. I think that’s the only reason why I ordered that dish, just for the swan.

What’s the opinion of Atlanta restaurants outside of Atlanta?
Getting better. What I like more and more about Atlanta is [there are] less of the big box restaurants and more of the neighborhood places. Every time I bring somebody to Atlanta for the first time, I go to Manuel’s Tavern, or I go and sit at the bar at Bone’s. I like the old school restaurants because Atlanta doesn’t have a lot of that history, and those restaurants are important.

What’s missing in Atlanta?
Think there should be more diversity at the high end. Atlanta has always had one or two big restaurateurs who always seem to have five or six restaurants, and they just churn and burn. Some of them are really good, but ultimately you find them unsatisfying in a way. [Atlanta needs] more neighborhood restaurants and fewer Atlantic Stations.

What’s one misperception people outside of Atlanta have about the city?
That everyone likes grits. That everyone is a racist. That everyone is fat. There’s this whole romance that everyone has with the South right now, but one thing I like about the South is all the contradictions and the dualities. We address that, and I think as much as Atlanta is still divided racially, there’s no place like [a Chick-fil-A], no place like Waffle House where you get all different types of people mixing. You can go out in New York City to various restaurants and you’d see the same sort of people always. I think people do get along and try to get along. There are certainly problems, but it’s no different than any other city.

Last question: Some of my colleagues are upset by your use of the term “Bu-Hi” [in a recent issue of Bon Appétit]. Can you explain the origins?
We didn’t have room to put “Buford Highway” in the header so we just had to shorten it. Even my dad gave me a hard time about “Bu-Hi.” The most letters I have ever gotten have not been about some opinionated story I wrote. It’s because the same thing happened to San Francisco, and we wrote “San Fran.” People from San Francisco got so pissed.