By Bob Allen
Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy says it was a mistake for him two years ago to involve his company in controversy over same-sex marriage.
Cathy, 61, recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he hasn’t changed his mind about the issue, but he regrets turning the family owned chain based in Atlanta into a battleground for America’s culture wars.
“Every leader goes through different phases of maturity, growth and development and it helps by [recognizing] the mistakes that you make,” Cathy said. “And you learn from those mistakes. If not, you’re just a fool. I’m thankful that I lived through it and I learned a lot from it.”
It all began when Cathy was visiting North Carolina and sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Biblical Recorder, news journal of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. Asked about opposition to the company’s “support of the traditional family,” Cathy responded near the end of Editor Allan Blume’s 1,250-word profile, “Well, guilty as charged.”
The quote received wider distribution after Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention news service, picked up the story July 16, 2012. That reignited a controversy from the year before over Chick-fil-A’s financial support of organizations opposing same-sex marriage that prompted Cathy to issue a public statement denying that the company is anti-gay.
Talk of a boycott spawned a counter-protest spearheaded by former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor and ordained Southern Baptist minister declared “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” on Aug. 1, 2012, resulting in a record one-day sales for the chain that closes on Sunday so employees have the option of going to church.
The controversy didn’t immediately hurt the bottom line. Chick-fil-A took in $4.6 billion in sales in 2012 — up 14 percent from the previous year — and opened 96 new stores, four more than in 2011. At the same time, ironically, 2012 tax records suggested the company had already stopped giving to groups that drew criticism in the first place.
Some communities, however, have said Chick-fil-A restaurants aren’t welcome, citing the lingering gay-marriage debate. Cathy admitted that could make it harder for the company to expand outside the Bible Belt into markets such as New York, Boston and Chicago.
“Consumers want to do business with brands that they can interface with, that they can relate with,” Cathy told the AJC. “And it’s probably very wise from our standpoint to make sure that we present our brand in a compelling way that the consumer can relate to.”