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Boycotts haven’t stopped the growth of Chick-fil-A

The controversial conservative chain is poised to become the third-largest fast-food brand in the US this year.

The future.
CCPixs/Flickr

Chick-fil-A, the Georgia-headquartered home of the “original chicken sandwich,” could become the third-largest fast-food chain in America by sales in 2018, according to a new report from Kalinowski Equity Research.

This is hardly blindsiding news. As Business Insider points out, “people have been predicting that Chick-fil-A could snag the No. 3 spot — behind reigning champ McDonald’s and Starbucks — for quite some time.” In March, the restaurant consultancy Technomic predicted that the chicken chain, best known for Christian values and also chicken, would rank third by 2020, but this year’s sales suggest the reign of Chick-fil-A is here even sooner than anticipated.

This suggests a couple of things: one, that Chick-fil-A is expanding its poultry empire at such a rate that it’s now “the restaurant competition with which McDonald’s U.S. should most concern itself,” per Kalinowski. And two, that the chain’s very public conservative leanings haven’t done much damage. People really love chicken, and they really love Chick-fil-A.

The numbers tell the story of a meteoric rise

Business Insider breaks down the numbers: In 2017, Chick-fil-A sales were up 14.2 percent, or $1.1 billion, bringing the total north of $9 billion for the year. As of July 2018, sales were up another 15.5 percent, bringing the predicted sales for 2018 up to nearly $10.4 billion. If those numbers are correct — and it’s a little hard to tell, given that the company is private and so financial information is limited — it’s enough to wrest the third-place slot away from Subway, which, despite the sub shop’s staggering number of locations, has had a rough few years in terms of actual sales.

It also makes Chick-fil-A the fastest-growing chain in the country; it’s now opening 100 locations per year. (Domino’s, which has been doubling down on pizza promos, and also the basic maintenance of public roads, comes in second for growth, at 12 percent, though first for pothole management.)

For context, this would put Chick-fil-A behind McDonald’s and Starbucks but ahead of old standbys Taco Bell, Burger King, and Wendy’s. This is a striking, not because of the money — though that is striking, too — but because, in recent years, there is perhaps no fast-food chain in America as politicized as Chick-fil-A. And there’s perhaps also no fast-food chain more fervently beloved by people who strongly and explicitly disagree with those politics.

A brief history of Chick-fil-A and its related controversies

Headquartered in Atlanta, the company unveiled its first mall restaurant in 1967, and began opening standalone locations in 1986. From the beginning, the chain has been associated with the values of its founder, S. Truett Cathy, whose Baptist faith has always been a guiding principle of the business. “Corporate Purpose,” the company website reads: “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.”

The restaurants are closed on Sundays, for example. “It’s a silent witness to the Lord when people go into shopping malls, and everyone is bustling, and you see that Chick-fil-A is closed,” Cathy once told a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a detail cited in his New York Times obituary. But today, the chain says the policy was never about church. “It’s really about getting that work-life balance right. And that was so important then, and is still probably even more important now in the way the Cathy family continues to run their business,” a spokesperson told Thrillist.

Two things can be true at once: what for Cathy was “silent witness” can also be a humane labor practice; the desire to be a “faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us” can also inspire environmental awareness.

Other convictions, though, have been harder for would-be fans to stomach — specifically, the company’s stance on LGBTQ rights. In 2012, Dan Cathy — Truett’s son and the company’s current president — came under fire after it was revealed that the company’s charitable wing had donated millions of dollars to groups advocating against same-sex marriage.

“We’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,” Cathy told a radio show. “And I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude that thinks we have the audacity to redefine what marriage is all about.”

Advocates of marriage equality called to boycott the chain, and then opponents of those advocates called for counter-boycotts — conservative icon Glenn Beck sold shirts emblazoned with the non-phrase “A deep-fried storm is coming, Mr. Obama,” below a picture of a chicken — and the chicken sandwich restaurant cemented its position as a symbol of an American cultural divide.

When the restaurant began expanding its footprint in deep blue New York City in 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters that he would not be patronizing the chain due to Cathy’s statements, and he encouraged other New Yorkers to do the same. Despite this urging, Eater observed, the New York outposts of the chain are consistently packed, and the largest Chick-fil-A ever opened in Manhattan’s Financial District in 2018. It is 12,000 square feet, containing five levels, two kitchens, and an untold amount of chicken. In the New Yorker, Dan Piepenbring described it as having “the ersatz homespun ambiance of a megachurch.”

With every protest — most recently, officials at Rider University in New Jersey rejected a proposal to put a Chick-fil-A on campus — the company clarifies that it aims to “treat every person with honor, dignity and respect.” It reiterates that it is a chicken company focused on “food, service, and hospitality,” and that Chick-fil-A has “no policy of discrimination against any group,” and does not “have a political or social agenda.” At the same time, the company continues to make significant donations to anti-LGBTQ groups. It is also one of the largest US corporations that does not include sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination policy.

None of this has done much to slow the rise of Chick-fil-A

One could imagine the company’s high-profile involvement in controversial social causes might present a problem for the business as it expands. “Chick-Fil-A Finds Politics Can Be Bad For Its Business” announced AdAge shortly after Cathy’s initial comments in 2012. In Boston, then-Mayor Thomas Menino told the company it “would be an insult” to the city to allow the it to open there.

But by the numbers, Chick-fil-A is taking over the world. (It is even opening in Boston.) This is true despite the fact that majority public opinion seems to be at odds with the highest-profile causes the company supports: The most recent Pew data suggests that popular support for same-sex marriage is at its highest point in more than 20 years of polling about the issue, “even among groups that had been skeptical.”

“What’s interesting about the paradox of Chick-fil-A is that, in many ways, it’s probably one of the most socially advanced companies in terms of treatment of employees and its role in the community,” Thomas Ordahl, chief strategy officer of the brand consulting firm Landor, told Morning Consult. “And yet its founder has a position that is quite dissonant with most people in the U.S.”

It is certainly possible — even popular — to argue that even if you disagree ideologically with the aims of organizations the chain has donated to, it’s fine to eat their sandwiches. These tend to fall into two primary camps. One, as proposed by Jonathan Merritt at the Atlantic: that “we must resist creating a culture where consumers sort through all their purchases (fast food and otherwise) for an underlying politics not even expressed in the nature of the product itself.”

The other, best summed up by Kevin Pang in a thoughtful conversation at the Takeout, is that Chick-fil-A makes chicken that tastes good, and that while his purchases do support the corporate board — and therefore some of the corporate board’s causes that he does not agree with — the money also goes to pay “the local teenager working behind the counter and the owner-operator who’s probably a neighbor of mine.” At Grub Street, Chick-fil-A stan Nikita Richardson takes this one step further, pointing out company’s commitment to other types of community involvement — scholarship funds, major donations to food pantries — and highlighting the quality of service.

When it comes down to it, people like things that taste good, and they like things that are convenient, and it’s very hard for boycotts to gain lasting traction. As Merritt points out, a whole lot of liberals still shop at Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, despite the fact that the owner is a major conservative donor who opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage. People who care about working conditions still shop at Zara, even after notes from Turkish workers appeared sewn into clothes explaining that they hadn’t been paid.

It’s very hard to change consumption habits, and even harder to imagine that it will make a meaningful difference if you did. (It’s worth noting, too, that there are other customers, including sometimes-presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, for whom the company’s views are in fact a selling point.)

With an eye toward growth, the company has tweaked its philanthropic strategy, distancing itself — in some ways, at least; there are still Bible verses on the walls at HQ — from conservative churches, and instead focusing on community involvement through “youth and education causes,” according to Business Insider. (Though some of these causes also involve troubling stances on LGBTQ rights.)

It has also “pivoted” to what Business Insider calls a “more ‘premium,’ image.” It hired a James Beard Award-winning chef to consult on the menu and launched a high “innovation center” to test new concepts. The target customer isn’t necessarily the person who’d otherwise be hitting Wendy’s, but the one who’d be going to “chains like Shake Shack and Panera.”

Chick-fil-A sells one thing — chicken — and has so far mostly resisted the call to experiment with selling something else. Every entree on the current menu is chicken-centric, and while there are some nods to current trends — a “sunflower multigrain bagel” on the breakfast menu; a “superfood” kale salad as a side — it remains laser-focused on what it does well, which is make chicken. In world where every brand seems perpetually in the process of becoming a slightly different one, that simplicity seems comforting.

And then there is the company’s emphasis on “the customer experience,” which, by all accounts, is very, very good. The company “consistently” ranks No. 1 in customer satisfaction surveys — an asset that is, if predictions are correct, about to get even more valuable as demographics shift. Millennials, who are about to become America’s largest generation, also tend to care more about intangibles like good service, one analyst told Morning Consult.

The company is already trying, seemingly successfully, to distance itself from its history of funding explicitly anti-LGBTQ causes. At the same time, its main selling point — the service — is apparently only becoming more valuable. “When it comes to instituting ‘cultures of customer delight,’ Chick-fil-A has all but cornered the market,” wrote Eater in 2016. A market that is worth nearly $10.4 billion and growing.