ATLANTA — As the same-sex marriage debate rages, one person says he won’t be weighing in on the subject anymore: Dan Cathy, chief executive officer and president of Chick-fil-A.
Almost two years after he made headlines by throwing his support behind traditional marriage and later decried a pair of Supreme Court decisions that favored same-sex unions, Mr. Cathy hasn’t changed his mind about the issue. But he said Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A has no place in the culture wars and regrets making the company a symbol in the debate.
“Every leader goes through different phases of maturity, growth, and development and it helps by [recognizing] the mistakes that you make,” he 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.”
Mr. Cathy, 61, talked about the events of the summer of 2012 in an interview that included his thoughts about the company’s future and the path he wants to put it on as the newly named CEO. He got the title in November after his father, Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy, stepped aside at age 92.
Still, the gay marriage debate lingers. And the restaurant still occupies a niche as the only major fast food chain that isn’t open on Sunday, owing to the Christian, pro-family convictions of the elder Mr. Cathy, something Dan Cathy says he won’t change.
Mr. Cathy told an online publication in 2012 that he was “guilty as charged” in his religion-based opposition to gay marriage. Same-sex marriage supporters protested at Chick-fil-A locations; thousands who backed Mr. Cathy’s stance -— or at least his right to state it — packed stores.
The company repeatedly asserted that it does not discriminate against customers or employees on the basis of sexual orientation.
“Probably the elements that were stressful for me most is from our internal staff and from operators and how this may be affecting them,” Mr. Cathy said. “The bottom line is we have a responsibility here to keep the whole of the organization in mind, and it has to take precedence over the personal expression and opinion on social issues.”
Progressive Web site Think Progress earlier this month reported that Chick-fil-A’s foundations — WinShape Foundation and its Chick-fil-A Foundation — “dramatically” cut donations to groups that gay-marriage supporters deem anti-gay. The Chick-fil-A Foundation gave $25,000 to only one group, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
For Mr. Cathy, who is in a cut-throat business where no player can afford alienating market segments, the lingering identity is troubling. And there’s more to talk about other than gay marriage.
Chick-fil-A, like a lot of fast-food companies, is being forced by an increasingly better-educated consumer to review every aspect of its menu, from calorie counts to genetically modified ingredients to where it gets its chicken. Bowing to changing consumer tastes, it set a goal last month to serve chicken raised without antibiotics at all stores nationwide within five years.
And burger brands such as McDonald’s are developing more chicken products to capture market share among Americans who view poultry as a healthier alternative.
Chick-fil-A is one of the most successful in the industry, with sales in 2012 of $4.6 billion. To maintain growth, it wants to move beyond its Bible Belt base into Northeast and Midwest cities such as New York, Boston, and Chicago.
Success in those cities will determine whether the firm takes another stab at going international, Mr. Cathy said.
Chick-fil-A closed its sites in South Africa in 2001, but Mr. Cathy said he is interested in Europe and Asia.