Playing Chicken: Should Chick-fil-A’s Politics Ruin Your Appetite?
Maybe it’s the crack-like 340-calorie, 85-gram sugar-bomb large lemonade talking, but I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for the nuggets at Chick-fil-A, the popular Georgia-based fried chicken chain known for luring food-court trollers with free samples at shopping malls across the country.
Call it a guilty pleasure, heavy on the guilt.
Not only are these greasy golden-brown morsels (retail price: $4.69 for a 12-pack) packed with sodium (1490 mg) and cholesterol (105 mg), among other dubious things, but the tasty nugs come loaded with sociopolitical baggage, too.
In recent weeks, news broke that a Maryland-based franchisee of the national fast-food chain would soon roll out a new food truck, slinging its signature chicken sandwiches and nuggets on the streets of D.C. The upshot: A reignited debate about the company’s apparent conservative agenda and whether your lunch money is better spent elsewhere.
Critics point to millions of dollars in donations by the chain’s charitable arm, the WinShape Foundation, to a number of groups whose espoused views on gay rights lie somewhere along the spectrum between Rick Santorum and Kirk Cameron. These reported financial ties have inspired boycotts and protests at Chick-fil-A locations around the country. Just last month, students at Northeastern University voted to block Chick-fil-A from opening on its campus in Boston.
Last year, company president Dan Cathy publicly downplayed the controversy, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “We’re not anti-anybody. Our mission is to create raving fans.”
Yet the raving goes on from both fans and foes alike.
Locally, outposts of the chicken chain at both American University and Howard University have quietly closed in recent years, leaving only a single location, a stripped-down, ready-made, highway truck stop-style outlet at Catholic University as the District’s last remaining licensee of the fried fowl franchise.
With that glaring greasy finger food gap in mind, Keith Singletary, operator of two Chick-fil-A stores in Prince George’s County, developed the food truck concept “as an opportunity to reach out to new potential raving fans,” he says. “Eventually, Chick-fil-A will be in Washington, D.C.,” Singletary predicts. “Until that time, we’re going to do everything we can to help pave the way.”
Singletary is hoping to rev up the engine and internal fryers by the end of April.
For undaunted devotees of the chain’s pressure-cooked, peanut-oil-soaked chicken, the forthcoming food truck promises a more convenient way to satisfy their cravings than schlepping out to Arlington or Silver Spring for a fix. For detractors, meanwhile, it may present a new and constantly moving target for dissent.
Asked to address the latest uptick in anti-corporate rhetoric, a spokesman at Chick-fil-A headquarters would not comment.
For his part, Singletary largely sticks to the company line. “Chick-fil-A really is a neutral organization,” he says. “The company is founded on biblical principles, but our philosophy, if you go into any Chick-fil-A restaurant, is that you’ll never see any signage or statement that we support this candidate or that candidate or anything like that. Our goal is to get the message out to eat more chicken. That’s really the only issue.”
Singletary adds that he doesn’t expect any protests or anything of that sort when his food truck finally gets moving in the District, though he acknowledges the possibility. “If that happens, we certainly can’t control what others might do,” he says.
Official dismissals aside, the company’s financial dealings may be enough to a make any self-professed progressive-minded diner think twice about ordering those tasty nuggets. And, yet, every time I pass that red cursive logo with the cutesy chicken beak protruding from its capital ‘C,’ I find it terribly difficult to resist.
Does that make me a homophobe by proxy? Maybe.
The Chick-fil-A fracas is only the most recent politically-tinged controversy over District dining. Last year, after the proprietor of Adams Morgan gastropub the Black Squirrel appeared to beat up on immigrants in online comments, critics organized a boycott. Sample Twitter brickbat: “Dear Black Squirrel, you’re a bar. I come to you for good beer, not to support political grandstanding,” wrote @consciousstream.
But can you enjoy the beer—or the chicken nuggets—without worrying about the grandstanding?
If you believe that every dollar you spend and every bit of food that you pile into your pie hole is, in a sense, a political statement—and, in this town, with its prevailing ethics on local sourcing, organic goods and sustainability, an awful lot of people sure seem to—then, no. It’s a simple case of following the money. In regard to Chick-fil-A, for instance, your fast-food dollars support the local franchisee, who, in turn, pays fees to the corporate honchos in Georgia. The bigwigs then pour excess profits into the causes of their choice. As a paying customer, you’re financially complicit, however marginally, unwittingly or indirectly it might seem.
For conscientious objectors, there appears to be only one solution for guilt-free eating. It’s something Bible-thumping conservatives tend to talk a lot about: abstinence.
Staging a boycott, though, may have its limits. Refraining from drinking beer at your local pub over an owner’s politically charged comment could have immediate financial consequences for a small business like Black Squirrel. Or not. “I’m sure some people stayed away,” says co-owner Tom Knott. “Does it still resonate today? I don’t know.” Regardless, Black Squirrel is still in business.
When you’re talking about a multi-billion-dollar corporation like Chick-fil-A, however, losing even a few thousand offended diners could prove inconsequential to the overall bottom line. Even if D.C. diners entirely snub their noses at a Chick-fil-A food truck, that, in itself, probably won’t have much impact on which social causes a handful of corporate execs in suburban Atlanta decide to support.
In the face of such daunting odds, an otherwise righteous diner might as well just throw up his hands and say, “Fuck it. Holding on to my $3.19 isn’t going to change anybody’s beliefs. I’m hungry, and I want my chicken sandwich.”
There may be a better way to support equal rights without resorting to self-deprivation at the chicken counter. I like this approach: A friend of mine, Trey Pollard, offers a clever—albeit slightly more costly—way to offset the karma of his chicken sandwich purchases. He now matches every dollar he spends on food at Chick-fil-A with an equal donation to an organization that supports gay rights, either the national Human Rights Campaign, or an outfit right in Chick-fil-A’s backyard, Georgia Equality. So far, his personal poultry-laden charity drive has totaled nearly $100 in matching donations.
It’s a far cry from the millions in play from Chick-fil-A’s foundation. But, if it takes away the curse of dogma-laden food truck nuggets, count me in.
Illustration by Brooke Hatfield
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