“It’s Chick-fil-A, is everybody happy?”
“Yeah, man, H-A-P-P-Y!”
New Yorkers are not known to be the happiest bunch, but they didn’t turn their noses up at this call-and-answer chant orchestrated by the Chick-fil-A team.
Thousands of uninitiated New Yorkers--yes, thousands--stopped by the grand opening of the fried chicken chain’s first outlet in New York City on Saturday to quickly discover that buying a chicken sandwich from the Atlanta-based fast-food joint can feel like attending a cultish pep rally.
And indeed they were happy. In fact, they seemed positively gleeful waiting (and waiting) for their greasy sandwiches, waffle fries, and sweet teas inside the chain’s new 5,000-square-foot, three-level restaurant, near Manhattan’s busy Herald Square at 37th Street and 6th Avenue.
By lunchtime the line was down the block but fast-moving, and once inside, a smiling woman took orders and names down on her iPad.
Less than a minute later, I had snaked through the rope-line to the cashier counter, where yet another smiling employee greeted me (“Lizzie, come on down, sweetie!”), asked what special sauces I’d like with my meal, and told me to “have a pleasant day!” without drawing a breath.
Perhaps it was the Lord’s ministrations, or maybe the miracle of an efficient fast-food staff, but the notoriously religious fast-food chain’s Big Apple opening seemed to be proceeding without incident.
It often wasn’t even clear why the patient Chick-fil-A disciples were so cheery. FIT student Megan Jenkins, 19, was giddy. “I’m so happy!” she exclaimed, spilling some of her sweet tea in her excitement. “Did you get a large?” her classmate Kenny Rosati, also 19, asked of Megan’s sweet tea. “Wow.”
There seemed to be a genuine passion for Chick-fil-A’s assortment of fried chicken things, but I wondered how many people were here to make some political point.
In July 2012, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy told an interviewer that he ran the company according to “biblical principles,” including the then unsurprising addendum that he wasn’t a big fan of gay marriage.
Cathy, son of founder Truett Cathy, said: “I think we are 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.’ I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.
“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 want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families. We are very much committed to that.”
Cue the boycotts, which were met with a one-day “appreciation day,” spearheaded by Christian conservative radio host (and current longshot presidential candidate) Mike Huckabee.
His Bible-clutching, chicken-loving listeners responded, giving the company its biggest single sales day in company history. In other words, Cathy’s opposition to gay marriage was helping the company. And it didn’t seem to be hurting first-day sales in gay-friendly New York.
“I’m actually gay and I don’t care,” said Caleb Bell, 23, a recent transplant to New York from Louisiana. “For me, the CEO said what he wanted to say about his personal beliefs. He didn’t say anything bad about gay people. He didn’t say Chick-fil-A hates gay people. He said ‘my family’ and I believe this. I actually worked for a Chick-fil-A for six years and never had a single issue with them.”
When I asked Kenny Rosati how he felt when he heard about Dan Cathy’s 2012 comments, he chirped, “I was just so happy they were coming to New York!”
No, when you heard about the company’s anti-gay remarks.
“Oh. That. No, I wasn’t happy, actually.”
But he didn’t hesitate eating there. “It was before I knew I was gay, so I already loved the food,” he said. “I have plenty of friends who are like, ‘I’m not going to eat Chick-fil-A’ and I’m like, ‘Well, you're missing out!’ Most of them go to NYU...they’re so politically correct.”
I expected to see at least a few anti-Chick-fil-A protesters during my tour of the new restaurant, but none materialized.
This provoked expressions of both surprise and anger on social media that throngs of hungry customers welcomed the restaurant to a progressive city that has always been at the vanguard of the LGBT equality movement.
But according to one news report, after I left—and after thousands of diners had already satiated their appetites—a handful of protesters from Collectively Free, an animal and gay rights activist group, turned up to express their displeasure with the company.
Ashton Blackwood, 25, was visiting Manhattan along with her father Harris from Chick-fil-A’s home territory of Atlanta. “We read on the way up that this was happening so we just decided to come while we were here. They’re huge customer service people. The customer service is always top notch.”
Harris Blackwood revealed that they had come to New York for Ashton’s 25th birthday. “And happy birthday I took her to Chick-fil-A! It’s the most New York and least New York thing we can do.” (In fairness, they had previously attended a taping of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.)
Brian Kelly, a born-again Christian pastor from the Bronx, in a ratty “Trust Jesus” sweatshirt, ordered four chicken fingers, waffle fries, and orange juice. “I like the fact that they stand for the Lord Jesus Christ and that they’re closed on Sundays. That’s how it should be.
“Respect the Lord. The Bible calls gay marriage an abomination. I don’t have any gay friends but I don’t hate gay people at all.”
He told me that he would come back with members of the church. Maybe they will also visit the second planned NYC outlet of the chain planned for 46th Street and 6th Avenue.
But it wasn’t really about the chicken. He stuffed a few pamphlets into my hands (“God Says Please Do Not Go to Hell!”) and left me with a question: “Do you know where you would go if, God forbid, you died today?” I could have guessed that answer, but humored him with a flat “no.”
“Well, if you read the Bible you’ll know!”