2012-08-08 / Front Page

Chick-fil-A flap boosts sales for franchises

By Jim McConnell

Customers wait to order in a jam-packed lobby last Wednesday afternoon at the Chick-fil-A restaurant on Hull Street Road. 
Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer Customers wait to order in a jam-packed lobby last Wednesday afternoon at the Chick-fil-A restaurant on Hull Street Road. Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer Chesterfield County’s Chick-fil-A franchises last week became unlikely fast-food forums for debates on gay marriage and the First Amendment.

The controversy followed Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s public support of the “Biblical definition” of marriage and his comment that sanctioning same-sex marriage is tantamount to “inviting God’s judgment.”

Soon after his July 16 statement, gay-rights activists utilized social media to organize a national “same-sex kiss day.” Homosexual couples last week planned to visit Chick-fil-A restaurants and kiss in protest of Cathy’s comments.

Hearing of that, supporters of the fast-food chain turned to social media to organize a counterdemonstration, dubbed Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.

And while dueling demonstrations played out throughout the nation last week, some Chesterfield residents wound up in both camps.

One day last week, the county’s five Chick-fil-A franchises were flooded with supporters. Some said they shared Cathy’s beliefs while others supported his right to free speech.

“I think people should be able to say what they want without getting a slap on the hand,” said Debra Zickafoose, whose daughter Meghan works at the Chick-fil-A at Westchester Commons.

Added fellow Chick-fil-A lunch customer Dana Johnson: “I did come to make a statement. You have to speak out for freedom.”

In contrast, Kyle Smiley, a recent L.C. Bird High graduate, saw the Chick-fil-A controversy as an opportunity to generate support for gay rights.

Smiley, who is heterosexual, said he was raised by his parents “to be accepting of everyone.” So he felt compelled to help the cause of gay marriage.

“I think everyone should be able to get married without being hassled and harassed,” said Smiley, who will begin his freshman year at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst later this month. “It’s something I believe in. I realize that not everyone will agree with it. That’s what this country was founded on.”

In an interview last week, Smiley was careful to point out that he was organizing an event at the Chick-fil-A franchise in Chesterfield Towne Center not as a protest but as an effort to encourage tolerance and understanding.

“It will be obvious that gay people are there, but we won’t be disturbing people trying to eat,” said Smiley, who planned his event for Aug. 7. “We’re not going to be picketing people or being obnoxious.”

Inside county lines, Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day produced long drive-through lines, packed lobbies and boosted sales at each of the county’s five locations. “It was a great day,” said Erik DeVriendt, owner/operator of the Chick-fil-A franchise at Westchester Commons. “I’m really proud of the way our team handled the extra volume. It was an extremely busy day, but they took it in stride.”

Several interesting stories emerged from the controlled chaos of that day. One local manager came in at 3:15 a.m. to help unload a truck and stayed all the way through the dinner rush. Numerous employees agreed to stay and work well past their normal shifts. And customers smiled broadly despite waiting in lines that stretched outside the door and into the parking lot.

“To me, the most amazing thing was that, even though it was a tremendously busy day, we had all that traffic and not a single complaint,” said Todd Mercer, who owns the Chick-fil-A franchise on Hull Street Road in Midlothian.

Mercer wasn’t interested in discussing the political element of the controversy surrounding Cathy’s remarks. “We treat all of our customers with dignity, honor and respect,” he said. “Everybody in this country has the right to protest.”

But the subject of gay rights was meaningful for one longtime Chick-fil-A customer.

Local teacher Christopher Fens waited in line for 45 minutes with his wife and six children at the Hull Street location. “It’s about time that we have a company that’s willing to stand up for what’s right,” he said.

Fens insisted that his belief in “traditional family values” doesn’t preclude him from loving his sister, who is a lesbian. “You can love the sinner and hate the sin,” he added. “People on the other side seem to have a hard time understanding that.”

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