A mini tent city appeared on upper State Street early Wednesday morning, filled with 86 die hard Chick-fil-A fans trying to be the new fast food restaurant's inaugural customers for its grand opening 24 hours later.
The first 100 to pass through its doors got meal vouchers for 52 of the chain's No. 1 combos, redeemable anywhere, anytime. Campers came from as far away as Arizona, some with 30+ opening day field trips under their belts, and all had to wear numbered wristbands and stay put in the chain's parking lot until 6 a.m. Thursday or else lose their place in line.
Amid humming generators, board games on folding tables, and power strips bristling with laptop and TV cords, Santa Barbara's Chick-fil-A owner, Carol Ruiz, said there hadn’t been an issue with the new South Coast location after last year's flap at the city's Architectural Board of Review when some of the board’s members abstained from voting on a design change following controversial statements made by Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy about gay marriage. Those in line Wednesday said they only had food on their minds. “I'm just here for the chicken,” said Jade Lansing.
But across town later in the afternoon, an LGBTQ advocacy group calling itself the Lose Your Appetite for Hate Coalition ascended the steps of City Hall to protest Chick-fil-A's “questionable history of anti-gay donations.” Its members, organized by the Santa Barbara Equality Project and including representatives from Pacific Pride Foundation, the Fund for Santa Barbara, and the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party, said the company — despite recent news reports to the contrary — continues to funnel millions of dollars through its charity to anti-gay causes.
In 2010 alone, Chick-fil-A's charity arm, the WinShape Foundation, reportedly received $8 million from corporate Chick-fil-A, Inc., which collects 50 percent of all profits from local franchises. In 2008, some of the organizations the chain supports backed the statewide Proposition 8 campaign against marriage equality. Records show the company still donates large sums to the Marriage & Family Foundation, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the National Christian Foundation.
Though Chick-fil-A has stopped giving to some of the more extreme efforts it previously supported — a total of $2,000 was given to Uganda's “Kill the Gays bill” and “gay conversion therapy” practiced by certified hate group Exodus International — those rescinded funds account for less than one percent of the company's total anti-gay donations, according to an Equality Matters report handed out Wednesday. “Our main goal is to end media speculation, along with encouraging local restaurants and members of the Santa Barbara community to pledge not to patronize businesses that support hate of the LGBTQ community,” said Lauren Gunther, with the Santa Barbara Equality Project. According to Gunther, Silvergreens has vowed to support the coalition.
“We have many locals who have already pledged they won't give their money for hate,” said Tania Israel with the Fund for Santa Barbara. In a prepared statement dispersed to media before the press conference, Pacific Pride said that, “Unlike many other fast food chains, Chick-fil-A does not offer any domestic partnership benefits and does not have any non-discrimination policies in place to protect LGBT employees.” The statement also included a quote given by Dan Cathy to Mike Huckabee in response to reports that Chick-fil-A would end donations to groups against same-sex marriage. “There continues to be erroneous implications in the media that Chick-fil-A changed our practices and priorities. … Chick-fil-A made no such concessions, and remains true to who we are and who we have been.”
The confusion seems to have arisen from a January 28 Huffington Post article in which Shane Windmeyer — co-founder and director of Campus Pride, a national support organization for LBGTQ students in college — said he and Dan Cathy had become friends, and that he had seen Chick-fil-A's 2011 tax forms that showed the company had completely stopped giving to anti-gay groups. “… The financials affirms Chick-fil-A's values a year prior to the controversy this past July,” Windmeyer said. “The funding reflects Chick-fil-A's promised commitment not to engage in 'political or social debates.'”
CNN, ABC, and the Los Angeles Times quickly reported on Windmeyer's assertions. But in an interview with The Advocate soon after, Windmeyer clarified that a few of the groups in question and identified as decidedly anti-gay were still, in fact, receiving donations. Just the more extreme organizations had lost Chick-fil-A funding, he stated.
Back in the parking lot of Santa Barbara's one and only Chick-fil-A, which replaced a Burger King at 3707 State Street, the controversy that's coated the fast food behemoth was either lost on or forgotten by the customer campers and restaurant staff. Mackenzie Matthews came with three friends for the grand opening, her fifth. They said they were looking forward to the DJ scheduled to play later in the evening, and expressed deep gratitude for Chick-fil-A staffer Mama Sue who had made sure the campers were comfortable with bathroom access, free drinks, and free food. “We do things different than Apple,” said corporate staffer Cindy Chapman in reference to how they pamper their eager guests.
Jim and Barbara Klaus from Orange County said they stopped tallying the grand openings they'd attended after around 30 in five years. They give most of their vouchers away to friends and family, they explained, and noted the Santa Barbara event was one of the best they've attended. “It's fantastic,” said Jim, staring up at the Santa Ynez Mountains in the morning light. Soon after, Jade Lansing asked Chapman how many people were counted during the last line-up, which were scheduled for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and right before bed. Chapman said the number had dropped from 86 to 83. “Call your friends,” she said to Lansing. “I definitely will,” Lansing replied.
A few parking spaces away, Ryan Ellis and Justin Smith were jamming on guitars and singing an improvised tune that lamented the single fried chicken biscuit sandwich they received for breakfast. It was so tasty, they crooned, and they were still hungry, so they wanted another. What drew them to the chain's 10-year grand opening tradition? “When I heard about this, I thought to myself, 'If I ever do anything in my life, I want it to be this,’” said Ellis with a wry smile. And what would they do with their 52 vouchers? Would they give them away or eat through the collection themselves? “Jesus will let me know,” Ellis continued. He explained he's not religious, but loves Jesus.
Owner Carol Ruiz, who showed off her location's expanded patio with seating for 70, freshly manicured landscaping, and enlarged kitchen where all the fast food joint's meals are hand-made, said she hired 80 workers for the new franchise. A former brand management executive for an international cosmetics firm, Ruiz had lived in Santa Barbara for years before moving abroad. She's back in town and said her sister, who operates a Chick-fil-A in Atlanta, inspired her to apply for ownership.
Soaking in what she called the camaraderie of her guests, Ruiz said she was as excited as everyone else for the scavenger hunt organized for later in the day and the appearance of Chick-fil-A's cow mascot. Even before the grand opening, she noted, the franchise had set up food donation programs with nearby Citrix and Raytheon and area retailers.
Chick-fil-A, founded 1967 in an Atlanta, Georgia suburb, plans to open 102 new locations around the country this year. There are already 1,691 restaurants in 39 states, and the company reached $4.6 billion in sales in 2012, an increase of nearly 14 percent from the year before. Ruiz said four new franchises will open in Southern California in the coming weeks, including one in Ventura by the end of the month.