Chick-fil-A’s 116th Avenue Northeast parking lot felt like a carnival Wednesday evening. Roughly 14 hours before the store would open its doors Thursday morning, making it the state’s lone Chick-fil-A franchise, about 150 folks had already set up tents and were playing games of beanbag toss, throwing a football, and enjoying a day of free chicken sandwiches. The queue of people, and their queued-up anticipation, resembled patrons awaiting an Apple store’s opening for the latest iPhone release.
The jubilant response the fast-food chain received in Bellevue is a reminder that Chick-fil-A’s anti-gay sociopolitical associations of three years ago are a distant memory to consumers, even in the liberal Puget Sound area. The party outside Chick-fil-A also sends a helpful message to Starbucks, which recently suffered through CEO Howard Schultz’s own roundly criticized foray into societal discussion: Good chicken (or good coffee) trumps cloudy politics.
In 2012, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy, who then was COO of the Atlanta company, was quoted in The Baptist Press as saying, “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.”
Cathy’s comments resulted in a wave of protests and counter protests, which culminated in a GLAAD-endorsed nationwide display of public affection by gay people in Chick-fil-A parking lots, and there was a movement among gay marriage supporters to boycott Chick-fil-A restaurants. Furthermore, people learned the Cathy family’s WinShape Foundation had been donating to political groups denouncing gay marriage.
Three years later, the Cathys are out of the spotlight, and Chick-fil-A parking lots are filled with customers, not protesters. So while Schultz licks his wounds after a failed attempt at sparking conversations about race, he can rest assured that in the battle between product and politics, the chicken wins.
“I’m indifferent to it,” Davis Smith, a Seattle resident camping in the Chick-fil-A lot, said Wednesday about Chick-fil-A’s political leanings. “As a private company, they can say whatever they want. … You want to boycott? Try the chicken, then we’ll talk about it.”
Chick-fil-A still has a value-laden message, though it’s more choosy about which values it will touch. Valerie Artis, the Bellevue location’s franchisee, said she decided to open a Chick-fil-A franchise because “the values that Chick-fil-A represents and what my parents taught me and what I try to instill in my kids still very much align.” Artis discussed the company’s reputation for community involvement and philanthropy, traits any franchisee would like to highlight.
But what about those other Chick-fil-A values? “The beauty about Chick-fil-A is that they really trust their owner-operators to become part of the community, and it’s really the voice of the owner once they’re in their area,” Artis says. In other words, the Cathys have effectively quieted down and let their franchisees do the talking.
Don’t be surprised to see Schultz take a similar approach. The best approach for a retail behemoth under the microscope might be to remain quiet, lie low, and let consumerism do the work for them.
“I tried to boycott Apple because of their manufacturing processes in China,” Rob Goly, Smith’s friend, said in front of his tent. “But it’s impossible. Apple is everywhere.”
“Yeah, if you’re going to draw a line in the sand, how do you settle on chicken sandwiches?” Smith responded. “Unless (a company) is an outspoken member of ISIS, I won’t boycott it.”