Chick-fil-A is back in the spotlight after Sen. Lindsey Graham vowed to “go to war” for the fast-food company. But how exactly did a chicken sandwich restaurant become such a lightning rod of political division?
Chick-fil-A prides itself on its signature chicken sandwich, featuring freshly battered boneless breasts served with dill pickles and toasted buns. Its business model has been emulated by several companies — including Popeyes, Wendy’s, and McDonald’s — but its food is not what gets liberal critics going. Rather, it is the past corporate donations and the political and religious views of its founder and current CEO.
The first Chick-fil-A was opened by S. Truett Cathy decades ago in Georgia, and the chain saw rapid growth across the South. It has since spread across the country with more than 2,600 locations.
Cathy was a deeply religious man and kept his stores closed on Sunday to adhere to biblical principles, which he believed translated well to good business principles.
“To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A,” the company’s corporate purpose states on its website.
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The controversies began over donations from Cathy’s charitable endeavor, the WinShape Foundation, which poured money into organizations that espouse a traditional family model and oppose gay marriage. In 2010, nearly $2 million was donated to the Marriage and Family Foundation, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the National Christian Foundation.
Smaller amounts were donated to the Family Research Council, a socially conservative think tank, and Exodus International, which championed conversion therapy before disbanding in 2013 when its president renounced the practice and apologized.
Cathy, who died in 2014, handed the reins of the company to his son, Dan Cathy, the year prior. The younger Cathy, who serves as chairman and CEO, has also courted controversy for remarks about gay marriage.
“As it relates to society in general, I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,’” Dan Cathy said during a 2012 radio interview. “I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we would have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is all about.”
The comments sparked calls for Chick-fil-A boycotts and further enmity toward the fast-food company by some on the Left.
Chick-fil-A’s New York City debut was fraught with demonstrations against the chicken chain. As hundreds of hungry customers waited in line to order food at the newly opened store in Herald Square, gay and transgender activists who were upset about the company’s past donations and political stances held signs and chanted in the street.
Despite the outrage, Chick-fil-A now has several stores spread out across the Big Apple.
Joel Griffith, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Examiner it continues to be a profitable restaurant despite attacks from the Left. Although a vocal minority might generate headlines, he said most people think about food and not social issues when choosing where to dine.
“It turns out that when people look to get a good meal, they’re not really looking at the political ideology or perceived political ideology or support of the owners,” Griffith said.
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The company hasn’t just faced flak in the United States.
Its first foray into the United Kingdom ended after gay rights activists pushed back and called for boycotts. After public criticism, a shopping center in Reading, England, decided not to renew its six-month pilot lease with the restaurant after opening in October 2019.
Another store in the Scottish Highlands closed its doors in January 2020 amid pressure and boycotts, according to the Advocate.
In April 2019, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority decided the fast-food chain could not open a store at Buffalo Niagara International Airport under pressure from a liberal New York state assembly member. The New York affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union later came to Chick-fil-A’s defense, citing the First Amendment.
That same year, the San Antonio City Council voted to block the fast-food chain from coming to that city’s airport, citing the company’s “legacy of anti-LGBT behavior.” The decision prompted outrage among the GOP, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed the Save Chick-fil-A law, which bars government entities from taking “adverse action” over a business’s donations or religious affiliations.
The liberal outcry over Chick-fil-A appeared to wind down in November 2019 when the company severed ties with the Salvation Army, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.
“There’s no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are,” Tim Tassopoulos, Chick-fil-A’s president and chief operating officer, told Bisnow. “There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message.”
Chick-fil-A was back in the headlines this month when more than 200 students and faculty members at the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic university, signed an open letter asking campus dining to oppose opening a Chick-fil-A on campus. The matter became even more outsize when Graham, a South Carolina Republican, vowed to defend the restaurant.
“I want everyone in South Carolina and across America to know I have Chick fil-A’s back,” he tweeted. “I hope we don’t have to, but I will go to war for the principles Chick fil-A stands for. Great food. Great service. Great values.”
Graham later declared a “big win” when the university announced it would build a Chick-fil-A on campus despite the objections.
Also grabbing attention this month is a push by some New York Democratic lawmakers urging to ban the restaurants from rest stops. Three members wrote a letter voicing opposition to the stores being opened.
Chick-fil-A pushed back on the claims and emphasized it was an apolitical business.
“We want to be clear that Chick-fil-A does not have a political or social agenda, and we welcome everyone in our restaurants.”
Griffith, the economist, said regardless of political bent, people should be “very concerned” when any politician attempts to block a private business from operating. He pointed out it would be just as concerning if conservative politicians tried to block a liberal owner’s business from setting up shop.
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Despite criticism from the Left, the restaurant chain, known for its hospitality and friendly workers, has ranked as one of the companies with the best work cultures in the U.S., according to a survey of employees conducted by job website Glassdoor.
The Washington Examiner contacted Chick-fil-A for further comment about the company and its past political controversies but didn’t respond by the time of publication.