28 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

(USA TODAY) -- Chick-fil-A is trying - with some success - to turn the page.

Make that, pages.

The fast-food chain's image took a social-media pounding last year after its president said that Chick-fil-A supported the biblical definition of the family - interpreted by many gays and gay marriage supporters as a slap in the face.

Now, nearly a year later, the Atlanta chain - which surpassed KFC last year to become the nation's largest domestic fast-food chicken chain, with sales of $4.6 billion - on Tuesday will announce detailed plans to try to broaden its appeal to the crucial Millennial market, whose business it will need in order to continue broadening its national and, ultimately, international growth plans.

Beginning April 29, Chick-fil-A will seriously play the health card, by junking all of its current salads and replacing them with an entirely new salad lineup focused on fresh ingredients. It will roll out healthier wraps. It will post calorie counts on new menu boards. And in a first for a national fast-food chain, it will open up all of its 1,700 restaurants to instant back-of-the-house tours by curious customers - and give folks a freebie ice cream cone or cookie at the end of the tour.

"I know of no one else doing this," says Dan Cathy, 60, the company's longtime president, whose chain saw its same-store sales jump more than 7.7% last year, more than twice the industry average.

At the same time, Cathy, known for his conservative views, has worked to make some amends with the gay community since last year's social-media controversy.

"It's helped me to be more wise in what I say and how I say it," says Cathy, in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY.

While Chick-fil-A still encourages "traditional families," Cathy says, "our objective is always to show respect for other people and show respect for their views."

Following last year's social-media firestorm, he says, private meetings with some LGBT leaders, helped him to learn "that many in the LGBT community have been subject to incredible criticisms, meanness and bullying." And, to his horror, some of that was taking place in the name of Chick-fil-A. His dismay over such treatment, he says, helped to form a "point of common ground," with his own beliefs. "When kids - and even adults - have belittling words towards each other, that is inappropriate," he says.

Early this year, Shane Windmeyer, a nationally recognized gay rights advocate whose advocacy group, Campus Pride, was a strong critic of Chick-fil-A, met with Cathy and blogged about his suspension of his group's campaign against Chick-fil-A. "Now it is all about the future, one defined, let's hope, by continued mutual respect," he said in his blog.

The future is exactly what Chick-fil-A is focusing on, too, with the menu evolution it will announce on Tuesday.

Even as big brands such as KFC and Taco Bell have recently made some better-for-you moves, Chick-fil-A's new, premium salads - priced at a hefty $6.79 - appear to move the bar. "You have to give consumers something to feel good about if you're asking them to pay more," says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at the research firm Technomic. "It's all about perception."

Iceberg lettuce will be replaced with romaine and mixed baby greens. Fresh ingredients in salads will include strawberries, blueberries, roasted corn and red bell peppers. Even the dressings are getting an upgrade. Out with standards like Blue Cheese, Thousand Island and Caesar; and in with twists like Zesty Apple Cider Vinaigrette, Avocado Lime Ranch and Honey Sesame.

"We view salads as fashion," says David Farmer, vice president of product strategy. "Expectations change. Millennials are looking for interesting flavors."

The new salads include Grilled Market Salad, Asian Salad and Cobb Salad - all under 430 calories. And instead of salads sitting all day, they'll be prepared throughout the day, Farmer says.

The chain seems to be making serious efforts to move beyond competing with just fast-food rivals, such as McDonald's and KFC, to also competing with more Millennial-friendly fast-casual chains, such as Panera and Chipotle.

"Customers are chasing value," Cathy says. "They want to feel as if they're getting more than they're paying for."

Its wraps, also, are getting a major upgrade. They won't just be rolled in plain wraps anymore but in wraps made with flax bread.

Meanwhile, the chain, which has locations in 38 states, plans to open about 85 more units this year. While there are no immediate plans to open outside the U.S., Cathy says it could expand into Canada this decade; and after 2020, into Europe, South America and Asia.

But once again, Cathy - who is no stranger to controversy - couldn't resist the opening when a reporter asks if Chick-fil-A currently has locations in any foreign countries.

"We're in California."

28 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://on.wusa9.com/1iKMzPr