Politics are typically best kept off the dinner table, they say, but the current presidency has marked a banner era for political statements made in the American food arena. Unsuspecting restaurants and bars have been forced to take sides when asked to serve members of the administration. Chefs, like Washington D.C.’s Jose Andrés, have catapulted to mainstream prominence for anti-Trump commentary. And, perhaps most significantly, social media mobs have pushed businesses to reconcile their own agendas with the beliefs of their consumers.
That might explain why just last month, Chick-fil-A, the Atlanta-based fast food chicken chain with a legendary track record of supporting lobbyists and causes that many consider anti-LGBTQ, announced it would no longer donate to the Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes—organizations that’ve been accused of LGBTQ discrimination. The company is ending donations to the groups through its charitable-giving arm and in 2020 will focus instead on “smaller organizations working in the areas of education, homelessness, and hunger.”
Is it too little, too late? Maybe. For years, Chick-fil-A, founded by a devout Southern Baptist family, donated millions to right-wing and religious advocacy groups—including some that supported the debunked, harmful practice of conversion therapy. The company’s stance on LGBTQ rights has made headlines several times throughout the past ten years: In 2011, a Pennsylvania franchise donated money to a marriage seminar hosted by a notorious hate group. In 2012, CEO Dan Cathy defended “the biblical definition of the family unit.” In October, a United Kingdom outpost shuttered after just eight days due to ongoing protests.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue of LGBTQ rights (a.k.a. human rights), this controversy begs several larger questions: As corporate stances on ethics and politics become more transparent (and shareable) than ever before, are conscientious diners obligated to research and avoid brands that hold views they find immoral or otherwise harmful? To what extent can a company be responsible for the actions of its employees, or even its small circle of leadership? Can outrage—carried out primarily across social media—hurt a brand where it counts most: the pocketbook?
The issue of to eat or not to eat at Chick-fil-A boils down largely to personal preference: No one should eat at a restaurant where they or their loved ones might feel uncomfortable because of a hostile political stance. At the same time, it should be understood that social media-driven boycotts have often failed to generate the desired change. Even before the latest announcement, Chick-fil-A had topped a MarketForce poll to be named the most popular fast food chain in America. But even so, perhaps it’s worth reminding ourselves that raising awareness and having necessary conversations is the first step to making broader progress in a capitalistic society where money talks loudest.
“Every brand wants to say the right thing and ruffle as few feathers as possible. Whether or not they behave in the right way is a different issue,” explains Allen Adamson, co-founder of the marketing firm Metaforce and adjunct professor at New York University. “The marketplace is so quick and reactive that figuring out where consumers are on any given issue is tricky. Chick-fil-A has only just begun to expand its footprint into new geographies where their social stance might have limited their growth.”
Chick-fil-A has been slinging its chicken sandwiches since the '40s. Part of the reason, then, that its right-leaning stances have resurfaced after a few years on the back burner might be that the chain is foraying out of the American South and into new regions with left-leaning consumers. Yet despite the culture war being waged against it, Chick-fil-A largely continues to grow. The company surged in 2018; it jumped from the seventh-largest restaurant chain to the third. According to The Takeout, Chick-fil-A’s reported $10.46 billion in sales last year have left some analysts thinking the company might surpass even Starbucks.
“Boycotts are usually a lot of smoke and not a lot of action. They’re most effective when there is a low-pain threshold to switching—like going from soda A to soda B, for example—and when the issue is something emotional that gets people upset,” Adamson says. “But the biggest impact is typically made on social media. And for a brand, that isn’t as important as where you put your corporate headquarters or where you invest in factories. You can’t keep everyone happy. You can try, but it just becomes a merry-go-round.”
Chick-fil-A certainly learned this after its donation announcement, as conservatives who once supported the brand for promoting “family values” have quickly and sharply turned against it. “The sad message of @ChickfilA is quite clear—they surrendered to anti-Christian hate groups,” tweeted former Governor Mike Huckabee. Meanwhile, Texas governor Greg Abbott, who earlier this year passed a notorious Save Chick-fil-A bill, tweeted that he would instead be dining at barbecue chain Bill Miller’s, which is owned by a major Trump donor.
For a large number of Americans, however, the Chick-fil-A battle is a non-issue. And for others who are sympathetic, it’s an issue not nearly worth the airtime it’s received in comparison to perhaps more pressing concerns. Oxford, Mississippi-based chef John Currence famously backed out of cooking a dinner for the governor when the state legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2014 allowing businesses to deny service to the LGBTQ community. Instead, he hosted a protest event. But Currence says he believes the outrage over Cathy’s comments were misguided.
“I deeply appreciate that people are engaged enough to take a stand. And in this case, there was a critical mass of people that made Chick-fil-A say ‘Ok, we hear you, we’re going to change things,’” Currence says. “But I wish we didn’t pick and choose things to care about as arbitrarily as we do. The world is burning. Why aren’t we protesting oil companies or companies still making incandescent light bulbs? We’ve politicized our children’s futures and we need to agree on those solutions first.”
It’s true: Your choice to abstain from a fried chicken sandwich might not seem to do much for the third of LGBT high school students who face bullying at school or 40% of transgender adults who have made a suicide attempt. But Ashtin Berry, a sommelier, bartender, and hospitality industry activist, connects the dots between micro and macro. “What people are missing,” Berry explains, “is that the decision to eat at Chick-fil-A isn’t just interpersonal; it is complicit in structural oppression. Chick-fil-A is an $11 billion company that supports anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation on a state and federal level. So the individual decision to eat and engage with the business is a decision to be complicit in their practices.”
Understanding why food choices are significant requires recognizing their inherent political implications. In many ways, that subtext both includes and supersedes any one issue in particular. “Food is political because agriculture and access to food are not equitable in this country—that’s why we have terms like food insecurity,” says Berry. “School lunch programs and programs like WIC have taken massive funding hits. And we haven’t even begun to address the labor and immigration issues as well as financial abuse facing the agriculture and farming communities.”
Berry notes the Chick-fil-A controversy has generated more visible mainstream buzz than the aforementioned issues because “it looks like a straightforward and one-point issue,” and that the way most media works has enabled “a climate where complex and multi-layered issues have been harder and harder for people to get a grasp on.” Indeed, for those who might think to opt for a Popeyes or KFC fried chicken sandwich instead, are their numerous accounts of labor injustices and immigrant exploitation somehow less worthy of our outrage?
Things become murkier, too, when an issue doesn’t fit neatly into the mainstream understanding of right and wrong. After all, you don’t see people boycotting Domino’s Pizza despite the company’s impressive effort to resist making their websites and apps compliant with federal disability laws. Then there’s the issue of whether an incident is isolated or institutional: Take, for example, the story of a deaf woman who was denied service at an Oklahoma Burger King because the drive-thru employee was “too busy” to read her order. That employee was fired, and the episode was seen as a regrettable error by one employee versus the corporate culture.
Political and social concerns of course extend far beyond the food industry. Equinox, a chain of luxury gyms, recently drew a Chick-fil-A-esque ire when it was revealed that its billionaire owner, Stephen Ross, is a prominent Trump supporter and donor. Not insignificantly, Ross also owns the Miami Dolphins and has developed New York City’s Time Warner Center and Hudson Yards. The cynics among us may be wondering: Is there such a thing as ethical consumption in 2019?
“I think we can always try, because purity is really, really difficult in any endeavor, especially when it comes to matters of ethical behavior,” says Soleil Ho, restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. “I think the better way to think about the utility of conversations about ethics and spending is to just lay bare the connections between ideology and everyday life so that we can be better-informed people in general. Capitalism depends on us not asking too many questions about those connections in order to chug along unimpeded.”
Boycotting Chick-fil-A isn’t changing the world, but it is refusing to be complicit in what many assume to be an oppressive structure. That’s only the first step, though: Once we understand the ways our personal decisions contribute to larger injustices, we can begin to visualize the labor required to affect real change. For some, total ethical consumption isn’t currently feasible from a time or cost perspective. To that end, Ho muses, “Perhaps a better question to ask would be: Why isn’t it realistic for average Americans to make better ethical decisions about the fruits of their labors? Then we can get somewhere.”