Years after gay marriage flap, Chick-fil-A plans franchise restaurants in New York

March 10, 2015, 8:44 PM UTC
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A U.S. flag flies outside a Chick-fil-A Inc. restaurant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, U.S., on Tuesday, Mar. 25, 2014.
Photograph by Luke Sharrett — Bloomberg/Getty Images

Fast food chain Chick-fil-A found itself embroiled in controversy a few years ago after an executive made comments construed as anti-gay. Now the restaurant, known for a conservative heritage, has announced plans to open its first franchise restaurant in New York this summer as part of a major push into big liberal cities.

The Atlanta-based privately owned restaurant operator will open a 5,000-square store on Avenue of the Americas at 37th Street, a five-minute walk from the Empire State Building and about half a mile north of Manhattan’s Chelsea district, an area with a high concentration of gays.

Such a venture might have been unthinkable in 2012, when then-Chief Operating Officer and current CEO Dan Cathy, the son of the company’s deeply religious father, told a Christian news organization that Chick-fil-A supported “the biblical definition of the family unit” and later saying that marriage equality was “inviting God’s judgment” on the United States.

Later that year, activists staged same-sex kiss-ins at some of Chick-fil-A’s 1,600 restaurants around the country in protest. While Cathy’s stance won him support from evangelical politicians such as Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, it also earned the company criticism from none other than the Muppets.

The Jim Henson Company, which created toys for the chain, said it would pull out of the deal. Chicago Mayor Emmanuel Rahm joined in, vowing to prevent Chick-fil-A from coming to Chicago.

But the controversy eventually faded, with Cathy deciding to leave the discussion of marriage equality to “the politicians” with his eye on the bigger prize for Chick-fil-A: big city markets. “The next big thing is urbanization,” Cathy, told USA Today last year.

Despite the dust-up, Chick-fil-A’s food has proved to be quite popular, even among gays. Chick-fil-A, which now has 1,900 restaurants and hit sales of $6 billion in 2014, is now the largest U.S. fast-food chicken chain, surpassing Yum Brands’ (YUM) KFC last year, and has put cities at the heart of its ambitious growth plans.

“This location will allow us to serve fans who have been asking us to come to New York and to earn the opportunity to serve new customers, as it will be the first of many locations in the city,” said Carrie Kurlander, the company’s vice-president of public relations, said in an e-mailed statement.

The company has operated a tiny location on the campus of New York University for years. The next locations could come as soon as late 2015.

Even though Chick-fil-A found itself on the opposite side of the marriage equality debate from the young diners it is wooing – a new survey this week found 59% of Americans support same-sex marriage, compared to 30% in 2004 — the company has been prescient on other matters of importance to that group. Last year, it announced it would use only antibiotic free chicken, a full year before McDonald’s (MCD) announced a similar measure, and according to USA Today, began testing not using high fructose corn syrup in its dressings and sauces.

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