Is Chick-fil-A being hurt by the kerfuffle over gay marriage?*

chick.jpgNot to state the obvious, but it can't be a great thing when a company receives way more attention from the homophobic comments of its CEO than from its actual product. I refer, of course, to the recent hub-bub over Dan Cathay's virulently anti-gay beliefs - the latest variation on the nation's red state-blue state divide. What's worth remembering, however, is that the chain has a long history of doing business its way. From Forbes:

Chick-fil-A's corporate mission, as stated on a plaque at company headquarters (and by Cathy), is to "glorify God." It is the only national fast-food chain that closes on Sunday so operators can go to church and spend time with their families; franchisees who don't go along with the rule risk having their contracts terminated. Company meetings and retreats include prayers, and the company encourages franchisees to market their restaurants through church groups. Howe Rice, a franchisee in Glen Allen, Va., hosts a Bible study group in one of his two Chick-fil-A restaurants every Tuesday. He offers a free breakfast to all who attend. "You don't have to be a Christian to work at Chick-fil-A, but we ask you to base your business on biblical principles because they work," says Cathy.


Danielle Alderson, 30, a Baltimore operator, says some fellow franchisees find that Chick-fil-A butts into its workers' personal lives a bit much. She says she can't hire a good manager who, say, moonlights at a strip club because it would irk the company. "We are watched very closely by Chick-fil-A," she says. "It's very weird." Is it legal? There are no federal laws that prohibit companies from asking nosy questions about religion and marital status during interviews. Most companies don't because it can open them up to discrimination claims, says James Ryan, a spokesman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Chick-fil-A has more freedom to ask whatever it wants of franchisees because they are independent contractors and not necessarily subject to federal employment discrimination laws. (Employees, however, may sue under those laws.)

The company has been sued numerous times over the years on charges of employment discrimination (typically, the cases are settled out of court). From Facing South:

One of the cases involved Aziz Latif, a former Chick-fil-A restaurant manager in Houston, who sued the company in 2002 because he was fired a day after refusing to participate in a group prayer to Jesus Christ at a company training program. Latif is a Muslim. The suit was settled, but the terms were not disclosed, Forbes reported. More recently, a former employee of a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Georgia sued the company for wrongful termination, alleging she and other women employees were victims of gender discrimination. According to the lawsuit filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Brenda Honeycutt began working at a Chick-fil-A in Duluth, Ga. 1991 and was promoted to a general manager in 1997. But Jeff Howard, the restaurant's owner and operator, "routinely made comments to [Honeycutt] suggesting that as a mother she should stay home with her children."

Business professors and marketing experts would grit their teeth at such an exclusionary corporate culture. So would any fair and reasonable human being. But Chick-fil-A isn't just any old business. It is practically iconic in the south (note that the company advertises heavily during the SEC football telecasts), partly because of the food and partly because of the Bible Belt sensibility (closing on Sundays is a reminder of that in places like Madison, Mississippi or Alabaster, Alabama). And Chick-fil-A reaches many more areas than the south. California has 52 locations, Maryland 59, Pennsylvania 59, and New Jersey 22. So this may be a case of a business that is successful in spite of itself. And forget about a boycott - they almost never have an impact, certainly over the long run. By the way, Larry Mantle got into the controversy this morning on KPCC's "Air Talk."

*This from a gay Chick-fil-A employee in the south. From the Daily Beast:

The people I work alongside kept going on and on about how powerful it was to be part of such a righteous movement, and how encouraged they were to know that there were so many people who agree with Dan Cathy. They went on at great length about how it was wrong not just for gays to marry, but to exist. One kid, age 19, said "I hope the gays go hungry." I nearly walked out then and there. That epitomizes the characteristics of these evangelical "Christians" who are so vocally opposed to equal rights. Attitudes like that are the opposite of Christ-like.

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
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