Chicken with a side of conservative values was the special at Chick-fil-A on Wednesday, as customers braved two-hour lines at the fast-food chain's Westfield Franklin Park outlet to demonstrate support for traditional marriage on Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.
The massive turnout of more than 500 people came as the establishment's increasing ties to politics have turned into a topic of national debate.
After the restaurant's president, Dan Cathy, last month voiced his opposition to same-sex marriage, gay-rights activists called for a boycott of the chain. The mayors of Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco wrote public letters denouncing Chick-fil-A's stance on marriage rights. In response, talk-radio host and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee deemed Wednesday "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day," urging defenders of traditional marriage and free speech across the nation to rally around the chain. The campaign's Facebook page, its main organizing platform, had more than 650,000 supporters as of late Wednesday.
To show her support, Shelley Goode drove 90 minutes from Michigan and then stood in line for more than two hours at the Franklin Park restaurant. The Michigan resident, whose parents have been married for 50 years and who will celebrate her own 25th anniversary in February, said defending heterosexual marriage was worth the wait. It was a sentiment repeated by many in line.
"I really wanted to support freedom of speech, especially when someone is willing to take a stand for conservative and Christian values," said Ms. Goode, as a Chick-fil-A employee finally handed her food across the counter. "If you turn on the TV, traditional marriage is debased, ridiculed, mocked. To see this turnout is amazing."
Customers began arriving about 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, and an estimated 300 people had joined the line by 1 p.m., said Julie Heigel, a spokesman for Franklin Park. By 2 p.m., the crowd snaked through the food court, out the doors, and around the corner of the mall.
Mike Herrick, owner of the Westfield Chick-fil-A franchise, said the restaurant had served 552 customers by 3:30 p.m., more than double its typical volume.
Chick-fil-A, which began in 1946 as a diner feeding factory workers, boasts more than 1,600 restaurants in 39 states, with sales last year at $4.1 billion.
Chick-fil-A franchises in Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus, and across the nation reported similar turnouts.
"Oh my gosh, it's like Black Friday here," said Ladonna Shrout, the manager of a Chick-fil-A in the Dayton Mall. "The line goes four or five stores down, and it's been like that all day. It's amazing."
But Mr. Herrick, who said he was not expecting the turnout his outlet received, distanced his restaurant from the ideology espoused by Mr. Cathy and the eager customers awaiting the chain's chicken sandwiches and waffle fries.
"This was a totally grass-roots effort. It had nothing to do with Chick-fil-A," he stated. "It grew. We were the beneficiaries of it, but it was not Chick-fil-A-started and it was not Chick-fil-A-supported."
That distinction did not dampen enthusiasm among customers in line, who cheered each time a diner left the food court carrying the restaurant's conspicuous red-and-white bag.
"I support Chick-fil-A because of their support for traditional family values and for marriage between a man and a woman," said Bryan Young, who traveled 45 minutes from Wayne, Ohio, for the occasion. He gestured to the line behind him. "If this doesn't show politicians and wake people about what America is about, they're blind."
Yet not all Americans agreed with the Chick-fil-A customers. Though there were no protesters at the Franklin Park Chick-fil-A, gay-rights activists have planned a nationwide protest on Friday called "Kiss Mor Chiks," poking fun at the chain's "eat mor chikin" slogan and encouraging protesters to kiss members of the same gender outside Chick-fil-A locations. And Equality Ohio has initiated a Facebook fund-raiser called Equality Chicken, asking supporters to donate $6.50 -- the cost of a Chick-fil-A chicken dinner -- to support the organization's advocacy work. Kim Welter, Equality Ohio's interim director, said Wednesday that the online fund-raiser had gathered more than $1,000 in donations, making it its most successful Facebook campaign to date.
"We always respect everybody's right to express themselves," Ms. Welter said. "But some folks get upset with the consequences of freedom of speech, and we get this outpouring of support. It's not just LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender] folks who are upset about this."
The Blade's news services contributed to this report.
Contact Jessica Shor at: email@example.com or 419-724-6516.