For many latte-chugging, Rachel Maddow-watching urban elites, over the last couple of years, Chick-fil-A had become a reasonably safe space to patronize again. Back in 2012, progressive types positively fumed at the Atlanta-based chicken chain after CEO Dan Cathy revealed that Chick-fil-A-affiliated foundation WinShape donated large sums of money to often evangelical groups that campaigned against gay marriage; Cathy also asserted at the time that Chick-fil-A as a company supported “the biblical definition of the family unit.” Marriage equality groups pushed for a boycott, and it worked: Chick-fil-A announced later that fall that it would not “support political or social agendas” (although the statement also tried to claim that “This [stance] has been the case for more than 60 years”).
If you chose to believe the company had put its anti-gay history behind it, well, you got duped: Two weeks ago, news site ThinkProgress unveiled 2017 tax filings for the chicken chain’s charitable arm, the Chick-fil-A Foundation, and the company is still funneling money toward youth organizations that preach against LGBTQ rights and espouse ultra-evangelical obsessions with sexual purity. The recent donation scandal reignited some protests: Plans for Chick-fil-A to open in San Antonio and Buffalo airports were quickly scuttled, and Google Trends reveals that searches for “Chick-fil-A boycott” have spiked a little since early March. Both, though, including the ensuing social media conversations, were a blip compared to the 2012 movement — which notably resulted in a backlash to the backlash in the form of “Chick-fil-A appreciation day,” created by Mike Huckabee.
The recent, somewhat tempered reaction to the Chick-fil-A news, then, suggests that socially conscious people are now more willing to turn a blind eye to the chain’s corporate activities — or at least to complain about them less vocally. Perhaps with marriage equality being a done-and-dusted issue, there’s a sentiment that opposing the chain is less necessary: One op-ed from 2015 argued “It’s Time For Gays to Forgive Chick-fil-A.”
Chick-fil-A has hardly been the only giant food chain to publicly plead for redemption after being engulfed in a politically charged controversy. Last year, Waffle House found itself facing calls for a boycott after a series of incidents in which black customers were arrested. Brief apologies were issued and the company promised to offer additional “customer service” training at one of the stores; the story died down, and for the most part, the company has escaped further scrutiny. Around the same time, in one of the defining events of 2018, Starbucks stoked mass outrage after an employee at a Philadelphia cafe called the police on two black customers. The story, which dominated the news cycles for days, prompted the company to do more than apologize: It took the unprecedented step of closing thousands of stores for bias training to at least look like it was trying to correct the problem.
But at Chick-fil-A, executives continued to allow the kinds of donations that got the company in hot water years ago: ThinkProgress highlighted $1.8 million in donations, $1.65 million of which went to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a Christian youth sports organization. The group appears to target youth in their formative teenage and college years, requiring would-be beneficiaries to agree with its statement of faith, which explicitly decries gay marriage. A smaller donation went to the Salvation Army, a more mainstream charity, yet one that has a spotty history with queer issues — the organization says it’s improving, but nonetheless was caught just five years ago referring people to gay conversion therapy.
Chick-fil-A’s apparent return to form begs the questions of whether corporations can ever be forgiven by consumers — or at least whether consumers can return to giving them money with a relatively clean conscience, since they are, contra the Supreme Court, not people. Since the 2012 controversy, Chick-fil-A has trotted out hypocritical statements like “our restaurants and licensed locations… welcome everyone. We have no policy of discrimination against any group, and we do not have a political or social agenda.” To say that while enabling groups that unambiguously fight against ideas of acceptance for all is an outright lie.
Until a couple of weeks ago, many people who were previously outraged at Cathy for his unambiguously anti-gay statements seem to have forgiven and/or forgotten. Maybe they were quick to tell themselves any money gained from their own personal chicken sandwich wouldn’t be funneled toward harming LGBT people, quietly thankful that Chick-fil-A’s promise to stay out of politics meant they didn’t necessarily have to perform their outrage and boycott chicken sandwiches forever. Or maybe they just decided the chicken nuggets were good enough that didn’t matter anymore. It’s unclear to what extent people have softened their views on Chick-fil-A, but one somewhat limited poll dubbed it America’s favorite fast-food chain, so there’s certainly no shortage of people believing it’s a warm and cuddly corporate monolith.
The company continues to lay the groundwork for major growth by tapping into less-controversial cultural conversations, highlighting progressive-sounding plans to eliminate antibiotic-grown chicken and corn syrup from its food chain. Successful expansions into markets like Chicago, Boston, and New York are decent evidence the strategy is working. Fewer than seven years ago, the mayors of each of these cities forcefully declared Chick-fil-A unwelcome. The chain has since moved in regardless, and isn’t going anywhere — a similar situation looks likely to play out in Toronto, a cultural context where such an evangelical-run company is likely to face even more backlash. (In fact, the company plans to open a couple dozen outlets in Canada — that’s not the kind of expansion that such a large corporation makes on an uninformed whim; Chick-fil-A knows it has a decent chance at success.)
The trick to succeeding in these places and major urban centers like New York and Los Angeles has been convincing enough of the populace that it’s all about the chicken, and none about the homophobia.
Indeed, it’s easy to forget that history when visiting Chick-fil-A — the staff are pleasant, many may be LGBTQ themselves, and it’s not like you have to sign an anti-gay pledge before ordering. It’s hard to see Chick-fil-A as homophobic when the upfront experience is so neutral. That neutrality is all deliberate. Don’t forget: Unless you’re an investor or shareholder, corporations aren’t your friend, and forgiveness is something that should be continually earned, not a one-and-done deal.
Of course, there are plenty of people who are okay with where this billionaire-owned chain donates its money, and they can go exercise their monetary free speech all over Chick-fil-A. For everyone else, there’s one, maybe two questions to ask: Are you okay with those people getting your money in exchange for some chicken in bread? And what’s your personal bar for deciding if and when a corporation is actually working for your forgiveness — as opposed to simply hoping you’ll forget?
Tim Forster is editor of Eater Montreal and an Eater.com reporter.