By Bruce Horovitz andJayne O'Donnell, USA TODAY
Chick-fil-A, on the cusp of replacing KFC as the nation's largest chicken chain, appears to be softening its stance on gay issues.
The Atlanta-based chain has been a contributor to causes widely recognized as anti-gay, and its president two months ago caused a social-media firestorm by saying his company was "guilty as charged" of supporting the biblical definition of the family unit. But the company appeared to offer a more moderating point of view late Thursday.
"Our intent is not to support political or social agendas," says Steve Robinson, executive vice president for marketing for Chick-fil-A, in a statement. Chick-fil-A's culture, he says, "is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect -- regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender."
The move comes at a precarious time for the 1,600-unit chain with deep Southern roots whose restaurants always have been closed on Sundays. As Chick-fil-A evolves from a regional player to national, the privately held company finds itself mired in hot-button social issues that most major corporations instinctively avoid.
"They have to move out of being a regional, cult brand into being a true national brand with all the responsibilities that go with it," says Ron Paul, president of the restaurant consulting firm Technomic. He says Chick-fil-A's domestic sales will surpass KFC's within the next year or two as it expands into more urban markets.
Chick-fil-A executives declined to talk. But since the controversy began two months ago, its sales may have actually increased, says restaurant industry researcher Malcolm Knapp. "Their convictions haven't changed one iota," he says. But as the chain expands nationally, he notes, officials likely decided, "it's just not worth a public fight."
The issue came to a head in Chicago, where Chick-fil-A was planning to open new stores. Chicago Alderman Proco Joe Moreno protested the openings and negotiated with Chick-fil-A to change its policies toward gays and stop donating to anti-gay causes via its own non-profit WinShape Foundation.
In a meeting three weeks ago, Chick-fil-A officials showed Moreno IRS 990 forms to prove they hadn't been giving to anti-gay groups, says Moreno spokesman Matthew Bailey. This and the company's pledge to treat all people with respect prompted Moreno to drop his opposition to Chick-fil-A's plans, Bailey says.
Anthony Martinez, executive director of the Civil Rights Agenda, says he's concerned that Chick-fil-A is "refusing to publicly validate their meetings and agreements made." His group will monitor Chick-fil-A's giving and practices and may take legal action if the company doesn't "uphold their promise," he says.
Contributing: Laura Petrecca