As the moon gradually blotted out the sun in a blur of red and black, America came to a standstill. Grandparents, parents, children, college sports teams all stopped on Aug. 21, 2017, to see the much-anticipated solar eclipse.
Craning their necks, crowds of people stared up at the sky at homes and parties across the country. But for the many people clustered on the pavement outside the south Franklin Chick-fil-A, the beloved restaurant was the natural place to celebrate. As operator Jeanne Hammontree looked around, the crowds that gathered outside her store illustrated the strength of the community she has been building in Franklin for nine years.
Celebrating such a celestial event as the once-in-a-generation total solar eclipse as well as birthdays, anniversaries or just the everyday cup of coffee and a chicken biscuit demonstrates how the neighborhood Chick-fil-A is woven into the fabric of the community.
“We all went outside, and they came to watch it at our store, because that’s where they felt comfortable,” Hammontree said about what was dubbed the Great American Eclipse.
“People could have gone anywhere, but they came to our store. We do life together.”
With the south Franklin Chick-fil-A temporarily closed for roughly six weeks of renovations, its customers have had a chance to reflect on the impact the store has had on their daily lives since its 2010 opening.
And some are having a bit of withdrawal, not only from the great food, but also from routinely seeing their friends and neighbors at the restaurant.
For many people, a fast-food restaurant is a place to grab a quick meal on the way to an event. But Hammontree and her husband, Richard, set out with the goal of building more than a restaurant. They wanted to build a community.
Today, longtime customers such as Tony and Margaret Mickholtzick see the store’s owners more as friends than as business owners. Jeanne and Richard Hammontree are regularly present in the store’s day-to-day operations, eating lunch with customers and encouraging a friendly atmosphere from the top down.
“They (the Hammontrees) foster a spirit of inclusiveness — everybody feels welcome,” Tony Mickholtzick said. “Everybody gets along, and that starts with them, with their smiles and welcoming — and that’s just nice. Because you watch the news, and you say everybody’s fighting and criticizing one another, and down there, you don’t see that. It’s a nice respite.”
Aiming to find people who can fit in with that friendly vision for the store, Jeanne Hammontree constantly looks for excitement and eye contact when potential employees interview for any positions at her store. She worked as a professional clown earlier in her career and that natural friendliness and exuberance has trickled down to her employees and her goals as a franchise operator.
“As a team, we try our best to make sure that anybody that comes in isn’t treated like a guest. They’re treated like family,” she said. “That’s how I hire people, people that are willing to talk and get to know our family. We try to know everybody’s name, everybody’s story.”
Drawn by the unique atmosphere, people stream in on a daily basis, with one group coming in around 8 a.m. every Saturday to eat breakfast, an example of the consistent community that has made this Chick-fil-A so popular.
Ken and Barbara Covington, two members of “the breakfast club,” say Jeanne Hammontree’s dedication to connecting with customers has kept them coming back every year.
“If you’ve been in there more than once, they’ll know your name,” Ken Covington said. “And when you come in, they’ll call you by name — that’s unusual.”
That community culture affects every customer at the store.
James Land, a Franklin resident who has taken lunch breaks at the south Franklin Chick-fil-A for nearly a decade, views the restaurant as a community hub, a place to escape the rigors of work and meet new people.
“It’s somewhere to go at lunch, where you can get away from the workday for a little and talk about something, not just business,” Land said. “The more often you see people, the easier it is to build relationships and friendships.”
With the upcoming renovations, the Hammontrees aim to help the restaurant grow in efficiency as they begin to develop their newly awarded franchise in Berry Farms. But the six to eight weeks of anticipated renovation time mean that Chick-fil-A’s many customers have been left without their favorite restaurant.
“We have to cook more,” Barbara Covington said with a laugh.
For many of the franchise’s employees, however, the weeks of renovation would mean almost two months without pay. But the Hammontrees have provided a solution to the problem, paying out of their own pockets for three weeks of paid vacation for their full-time employees as well as working out three weeks of work at other Chick-fil-A locations to cover the other three weeks.
When the Hammontrees’ Chick-fil-A reopens in July, the cars and the customers will flood back in, eager to return to the community they have grown to love. New and old faces will eat together and build new friendships, and as the Hammontrees begin the challenge of managing two locations, they aim to continue the traditions they have built.
For Jeanne Hammontree, that community she has helped build is a natural extension of the person she has always been, no matter her job.
“When you walk in as a clown and you see people light up and smile, you know they’ve had a great experience and they’re happy,” she said. “That has just stuck with me — to try to help people forget about their problems, smile and love. My heart’s desire is just to make people happy.”