Chick-fil-A has been one of the most successful restaurant chains in the U.S. over the past decade, putting it on pace to become the country’s third-largest concept and the largest competitor to giant McDonald’s.
For all of its success, however, the company has struggled to break free from a reputation that it excludes the LGBTQ community, a legacy of controversial comments made by CEO Dan Cathy during an interview with a Christian publication in 2012.
That controversy has re-emerged again this spring, following a March report in the publication Think Progress that the Atlanta-based chain’s foundation donated $1.8 million in 2017 to groups critics say have anti-LGBTQ agendas. The bulk of that, nearly $1.7 million, went to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). The rest went to the Salvation Army and the Christian youth residential home Paul Anderson Youth Home.
Chick-fil-A in a statement at the time explained that the donations were to support children’s’ camps and programs. “The narrative that our giving was done to support a political or non-inclusive agenda is inaccurate and misleading,” the company said.
Since then, however, the chain has found itself at the center of a political storm, as local officials in a handful of communities push back against the company, blocking proposed locations and organizing protests.
The biggest has come in Texas, where the San Antonio City Council blocked Chick-fil-A from opening a location in the airport in light of the donations shortly after the Think Progress report.
That decision sparked a defense of the chain in the Texas State Legislature, which passed a bill designed to prevent local governments from punishing people or companies over religious beliefs. It was dubbed the “Save Chick-fil-A” bill.
But the company also lost an airport deal in Buffalo. The loss of the two airport contracts are big to a chain like Chick-fil-A, which can generate strong sales through such locations while potentially luring new customers. The Federal Aviation Administration is reportedly investigating those two contract decisions, however.
Local officials in other cities are encouraging protests of proposed locations, including San Mateo County in California, where County Supervisor David Canepa said the company’s logo “might as well say ‘we hate gay people,’” according to the Daily Journal.
Earlier this year activists vowed to post rainbow flags outside of a location to be opened in San Jose, though locations have opened there without controversy in the weeks since.
The issue has been a challenge for the Atlanta-based chain for years. The company follows the religious values of its founder, S. Truett Cathy, and closes on Sundays despite pressure to do so otherwise.
But the company has hardly missed a beat despite the controversy. It boasts unit volumes that are among the strongest in the limited-service restaurant sector.
System sales since 2013 have doubled, according to the Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report. No large chain is growing as fast.
Chick-fil-A has expanded into markets such as New York City that are not exactly considered bastions of conservatism. It has done so well in New York, in fact, that the chain opened a 12,000-square-foot location there last year.
Chick-fil-A has nevertheless worked to distance itself from the gay marriage controversy.
In 2014, Dan Cathy vowed to “shut up” about gay marriage, noting that it was a mistake to wade into the controversy. The company has frequently insisted that it does not endorse homophobic views and earlier this year the head of its charitable arm told Business Insider that he would be open to working with an LGBTQ organization.
Its statement this spring defended its foundation’s donations, saying that its donation to FCA was targeted to summer sports camps for inner-city youth who are not required to sign one of the group’s sexual purity pledges. Its donation to the Salvation Army in 2017, the company said, was for children’s programs in Atlanta. Chick-fil-A said it has stopped making donations to the Paul Anderson Youth Home.
The Chick-fil-A foundation made $9.9 million in donations that year.
“The work of the foundation is committed to youth and education,” the company said. “The foundation helps with economic mobility of young people by focusing on homelessness and poverty, education, and community revitalization, and is done with no political or social agenda.”