Dan Cathy, son of S. Truett Cathy and current President and Chief Operating Officer of Chick-fil-A, came under fire this week for comments he gave during an interview with the Biblical Recorder. When asked about his company’s support of the traditional family model, Cathy said “Well, guilty as charged” and continued to state that his company had always supported the traditional family model. The internet immediately lit up with both pro-CFA and anti-CFA commentary. Business Insider earlier this month jumped on the bandwagon by listing Chick-fil-A first on its list of corporations accused of being anti-gay, which also includes the Salvation Army.

The full context of the quote doesn’t exactly come across as the workings of an evil anti-gay mastermind, however, but rather as a religious individual with certain convictions about marriage and families that he seeks to reflect in his company’s business model.  Here is the original context of the quote, taken from a re-release from Baptist Press:

The company invests in Christian growth and ministry through its WinShape Foundation (WinShape.com). The name comes from the idea of shaping people to be winners.

It began as a college scholarship and expanded to a foster care program, an international ministry, and a conference and retreat center modeled after the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove.

“That morphed into a marriage program in conjunction with national marriage ministries,” Cathy added.

Some have opposed the company’s support of the traditional family. “Well, guilty as charged,” said Cathy when asked about the company’s position.

“We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.

“We operate as a family business … our restaurants are typically led by families; some are single. We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families. We are very much committed to that,” Cathy emphasized.

This is the second time in the last two years that Chick-fil-A has found itself in the national spotlight on this issue. The first was in February 2011 when a Pennsylvania franchise decided to co-sponsor an event run by the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a group some gay rights organizations view to be the biggest anti-gay group in the state. I thought it might be worthwhile to examine this story now, as I was an employee at the time of the first incident.

That’s right: I used to work at a Chick-fil-A. Not in the fun, “I need extra money” way either. Like many college graduates over the past few years I found myself unemployed, and I lived for a little less than a year in a town north of Nashville, Tennessee while pulling my life together and preparing for graduate school. I was hired at a local Chick-fil-A franchise and worked about 30 hours a week from September 2010 to May 2011, using the money to cover my living expenses and trying to pay down my college loans.  Though I left just about as broke as when I started, that time and those experiences were deeply meaningful.

Our franchise was one of the more successful Chick-fil-A stores in the nation – we found ourselves part-way up a list of the top 10% during part of my time there. This success meant that we were always busy – it was not uncommon for us to do $2,000-$3,000 of business per meal per day, and on weekends those numbers jumped even higher. Due to Chick-fil-A’s high standards of customer service, much of the accompanying cleaning and running about was done with a smile. But through that smile and the real personal interactions that accompanied it, I was plugged in to the amazing community that had attached itself to the restaurant – everyone from retirees, to the radio hosts who would come in and broadcast every weekday from the dining room, to the familiar faces at the drive-up window.  They gave the place a distinct and warm character.

Our franchise owner/operator loved being able to run his own business and sell a good product – delicious chicken. As a result, he and his wife made sure that they had hired team members who would assist in that vision. We worked hard and tried to have fun. Sometimes it was not the most pleasant experience, but we all knew what was expected of us and we did our best to make sure that we displayed the hospitality and kindness that Chick-fil-A strives to maintain. And judging by the numbers, it would seem like we succeeded.

But during that month or so after the initial media outburst against Chick-fil-a as an “anti-gay” company, things became a bit strange.

On the one hand, there was the social media issue. My Facebook news feed was filled up with messages about how Chick-fil-A was discriminatory and hateful, and how the corporation needed to be taken down as quickly as possible. Nothing I read online was ever targeted directly toward me as an employee, but it was still bizarre to find myself so close to the issue.  It was  saddening to think that that I was indirectly accused of being complicit in homophobic oppression just because I needed a source of income.

It was also interesting to gauge the responses of the company’s supporters. People who would come in to eat with us started passing us notes – some addressed to the managers, some to the store in general – thanking us for standing up for biblical principles and rejecting gay marriage. At first it was an interesting phenomenon, but after several sustained weeks of these notes the situation just became annoying. People stopped writing notes themselves and started printing ones out that were provided online or by their churches. I personally saw huge stacks (dozens at a time) of notes being carried back into the office at the end of some days, and what started as a nice gesture became a logistical mess (what do we do with these notes anyway, short of throwing them away?) and a huge waste of paper. The pre-printed notes were especially frustrating for me personally, because there was absolutely no thought put into them – it was just parroting.

Both of these responses to the Pennsylvania incident, however, were founded in a basic misunderstanding of Chick-fil-A’s business model. In a 2007 article for Forbes, Emily Schmall describes in part just how this model works:

[Truett] Cathy likes to give a leg up to people who have ambition but little else: The company asks operators to pay just $5,000 as an initial franchise fee. KFC, for example, demands $25,000 and a net worth of $1 million.

Chick-fil-A pays for the land, the construction and the equipment. It then rents everything to the franchisee for 15% of the restaurant’s sales plus 50% of the pretax profit remaining. Operators, who are discouraged from running more than a few restaurants, take home $100,000 a year on average from a single outlet.

Franchisees, so long as they meet the other obligations of their contract (paying rent as described above, staying closed on Sundays, etc.) are basically independent operators. They arrange their own local advertising and public relations, hire their own local employees, and handle their own sponsorship arrangements and catering sales. The Chick-fil-A corporation approves who can be a franchise owner/operator, and does tend to pick folks who share in their corporate views on upholding Christian principles in the workplace (hence why Ms. Schmall felt it appropriate to call Chick-fil-A a “cult” in the title of her article), but that in no way dictates what franchise operators must do with that franchise once they have it.

Basically, the store in Pennsylvania that went on to co-sponsor the Pennsylvania Family Institute’s event chose to do so on its own, without the outside approval of Chick-fil-A’s corporate headquarters. But in doing so, it drew attention to the whole chain and generated considerable controversy on the internet, both in support of and in opposition to Chick-fil-A’s broader policies that tend to promote traditional families.

While many of us as employees happened to be Christians who shared more conservative values, we had no say in what the Pennsylvania franchise chose to do. We were forced to respond to the issue because they happened to be part of the same company. Furthermore, it wasn’t fair for us to be held responsible for the actions of another – good or bad – when it didn’t necessarily reflect what our store might have done in that same situation.

My point is this:  While Chick-fil-A as a corporation may have certain priorities, the local stores are each unique.  And they largely don’t care about sexual orientation in their day-to-day operations.  When a customer came up to the front counter, we never asked them to check a box for their sexual orientation or religious beliefs before serving them. We just smiled, asked them how they were feeling that day, and asked them what they wanted to eat. This, more or less, is what the company was trying to get across in its press release in response to the latest controversy (again, taken from Baptist Press):

The company issued a statement Thursday (July 19) telling its customers that “going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena” and that its tradition is “to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender.” It also noted that it has applied “biblically-based principles” to business management and will continue to do so.

The goal of Chick-fil-A and its employees is not to be oppressive or discriminatory.  Its goal is to sell you delicious chicken, and to do so while upholding certain beliefs and principles. Yes, their corporate office may fund some programs that support traditional family models.  But there will never, EVER be a litmus test put in place banning an LGBTQ person from coming into a Chick-fil-A restaurant just like everyone else and enjoying a meal. This is the universalizing nature of good restaurant hospitality – every guest should receive equal kindness and equally good service, period.  No exceptions.

So if you’re now preparing to weigh in on the latest batch of Chick-fil-A controversy, I ask that you consider what I have said here. For those who decide they still must oppose the franchise, I understand why you’re upset.  But please don’t turn this into a personal issue against local Chick-fil-A stores or individual employees. They may not even agree with all the policies of corporate Chick-fil-A in the first place.

For those who support the franchise, please think before you decide how best to show your support. The best thing you could do is give them regular business. If you really must thank someone for taking their position, please do so in person or with a personally-written letter, not a pre-formatted note or a printout that someone else did for you. Even better, show them that you really care – if the service is of good quality, leave the dining room team a tip! Tips were a huge positive energy boost for me and I’m sure they would be for current Chick-fil-A employees as well.

And if you haven’t made up your mind on the whole mess, that’s okay as well. It’s OK to struggle through this controversial, complex issue before you decide where to stand. But if your stomach’s rumblings ever hinder your ability to think, I highly recommend that you satiate yourself with some very tasty chicken.

David Giffin | Emory University | @D_Giffin