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Chick-fil-A keeps growing despite uproar

Continuing coverage

Today’s examination of Chick-fil-A’s annual sales is part of the AJC’s ongoing coverage of the debate over Dan Cathy’s comments on gay marriage last year. Stories have included fan reaction, the effect of bad publicity and what the debate could mean to the company’s bottom line.

Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy’s controversial comments on “biblical” marriage last summer and the uproar that followed didn’t dampen the Atlanta company’s annual sales.

The fast food giant, the nation’s second-largest chicken chain, ended 2012 with $4.6 billion in sales — up 14 percent from $4.1 billion a year earlier. The company also opened 96 news stores, four more than the year before.

The company does not have to publicize financial results because it is privately owned. It made revenue and store growth figures available at the request of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Supporters of Cathy’s views against gay marriage and his right to express them hailed the numbers as a victory, saying a summer boycott of the chain by backers of gay marriage failed.

“Marriage is an important question, but the way to address it was not to put a company out of business,” said Thomas Peters, a spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes gay marriage rights.

Advocates of a boycott and business experts said numbers don’t show the full picture. The unseen damage, they said, was to the company’s reputation and, potentially, to its ability to grow in cities with large gay populations or in states where marriage equality is legal.

“Short term financial results are one indicator of the health of a brand, “ said Tim Calkins, a branding expert at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Chicago. “You only see the real impact on branding over time.”

Meanwhile Shane Windmeyer, executive director for the gay and lesbian student group Campus Pride, said he’s been meeting with Cathy since August to talk about the gay community’s concerns and the company’s plans. His most recent meeting was Wednesday, he said.

The two have become friends, according to Windmeyer. He even attended the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta as Cathy’s guest.

Windmeyer said he’s been shown tax records indicating Chick-fil-A had pulled its support of groups opposing gay marriage - including the Family Research Council, the Eagle Forum and Exodus International — as early as 2011. He said he has circulated that information among gay advocacy groups to show the chain’s willingness to change.

Chick-fil-A declined to comment beyond providing the sales numbers.

The company became the center of the culture wars after Cathy - son of Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy - told an online religious magazine in early July that he was “guilty as charged” in his opposition to gay marriage. “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit,” he said.

Harder edged comments, in which he said “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,” also surfaced.

Gay marriage supporters saw it as part of a pattern that included the company’s donations to anti-gay marriage groups. Politicians in Chicago and Boston threatened to block new stores, though they relented when Chick-fil-A said it would no longer support political groups.

The company’s fans responded with Chick-fil-A “Appreciation Day,” which found millions around the country forming long lines to show support. The company said the event produced a one-day sales record. It also dwarfed a “Kiss In” protest by gay marriage supporters that followed.

But the company, as well known for its cow-themed ads as for its food, has said little since the controversy other than a few statements to set the record straight or thank yous to customers for their support on its Facebook page and website.

Chick-fil-A continues to face calls to close a few university campus locations. A move to close its Eastern Illinois University store was defeated by vote earlier this month.

“With any brand you can count on your core support and they clearly came through for Chick-fil-A in 2012,” Calkins said, though he added: “They (the company) have been quiet, which tells you they are concerned.”

On the other hand, Georgia State University marketing professor Ken Bernhardt - who consults for the company - said the boycott may have attracted new customers eager to support Cathy’s free speech rights.

“I think the flap last summer will not have any effect at all long term,” said Bernhardt. “When they open stores, they hire 50 or 60 people and that is good for the community. That means jobs.”

Windmeyer said he is still concerned that the company backs Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which promotes Christian ideals on school campuses and through summer camps, but which gay rights groups say promotes homophobia in schools.

“It’s complicated,” he said of the gay community’s relationship with the company. “It’s not yes or no (answer). What matters is there is a conversation. It’s a positive step forward.”

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