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When you make a comment, everyone's listening

I’m not just Nation’s Restaurant News’ senior (read: only) food editor. As a 21st century journalist with a full-time job, I need to wear many hats. My beat is not only food, but also any business news from chains headquartered in New England or, for some reason, Maryland.

I’m also responsible for covering five Southern chicken chains: Church’s, Popeyes, Zaxby’s, Bojangles — and Chick-fil-A.

What McDonald’s is to anti-obesity and anti-big-business advocates, Chick-fil-A is to social activists.

If someone’s got a bone to pick with how Americans eat, grow food or do business, they’re likely to take a swing at McDonald’s, usually for serving what William Jacobs, a researcher of food addiction, among other things, at the University of Florida, has called “energy-dense, highly palatable, very hedonic food.” Translation: high-calorie food that tastes good and makes people feel good.

Many restaurants serve such food, but McDonald’s takes most of the heat for the rest of the industry, I assume because it’s the biggest and most recognizable of all American restaurants.

Chick-fil-A gets attacked for more specific things.

The 1,600-unit chain set off a virtual firestorm of protest when it sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bo Muller-Moore, an artist in Vermont who was selling T-shirts with the slogan “Eat More Kale.”

That obviously was a play on Chick-fil-A’s “Eat Mor Chikin” slogan (written ostensibly by cattle with an unusually advanced self-preservation strategy), and arguably infringes on Chick-fil-A’s intellectual property, which the Atlanta-based sandwich giant has every right to defend.

Indeed, it did defend it, and the United States Patent and Trademark Office made a preliminary ruling in favor of Chick-fil-A over the issue.

But that defense undeniably tarnished the chains’ reputation among some people who saw Chick-fil-A as bullying a nice homespun artist.

I could tell how irritated some segments of the population got at Chick-fil-A over that trademark issue — not the first time it has defended that slogan, nor is it likely to be the last — because I get a news alert every time the chain is mentioned on the Internet.

But the number of alerts I got over that issue is nothing compared with what I got once people started protesting about certain organizations that Chick-fil-A helps fund.

In fact, my news alerts about that company seem to be split about evenly between stories of crowds lining up to buy Chick-fil-A’s signature sandwiches every time a new unit opens and stories of people protesting that Chick-fil-A hates gay people.

That’s not a new accusation. Once organizations advocating for same-sex marriage noticed some of the charities that Chick-fil-A gives to through its WinShape Foundation, including groups such as Focus on the Family and Fellowship of Christian Athletes that, among other things, advocate strongly against same-sex marriage, Chick-fil-A has been under fire.

But this week my news alerts lit up after the Baptist Press ran what was really a very flattering article about Chick-fil-A president and chief operating officer Dan Cathy, extolling his steadfast Christian values, which is of course something you would expect a Baptist publication to appreciate.

But there was a “gotcha” moment in the story that the Baptist Press used as its headline: “'Guilty as charged,' Cathy says of Chick-fil-A's stand on biblical & family values.”

The Press quoted Cathy as saying: "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.”

I’m not a Southern Baptist, but I’m still pretty sure that among them there’s nothing controversial about any of that. In broader media, however, in 2012, in the current social and political climate in the United States, Cathy’s comments were understandably interpreted as a serious attack on same-sex marriage.

"Aha!" the non-Baptist media said, basically. "He admits it!"

I’m pretty sure Cathy didn’t think he was admitting anything he hadn’t said before.

In fact, I asked him about the gay marriage issue back in May, when I was interviewing him about some executive promotions within the company.

“We continue to support and try to build stronger marriages,” he told me. “And I think people that would like us to weigh in on the discussion of marriage — that’s a social discussion and it certainly weighs into political rhetoric. It’s not our place to weigh in on that.”

He added that, because Chick-fil-A is closed on Sunday, “people speculate that we’re part of a radical right-wing agenda effort there, and that’s just not the case at all.”

It didn’t seem like anything Cathy hadn’t said before, and that didn’t surprise me because anytime I’ve seen him speak I’ve been impressed with his ability to understand his audience and choose his words in a way that wouldn’t raise any red flags.

So what happened?

My guess is that Cathy, speaking to fellow Southern Baptists, thought that he was among friends. In that context the “accusation” of being “pro-family” is as easy a thing to admit to as if McDonald’s were to acknowledge that it served energy-dense, highly palatable, very hedonic food.

But these days when you go on the record with anyone, you’re going on the record with everyone.

Soon after the media storm began over Cathy’s comments, but not after a politically unfortunate interview with another person he might have considered a friend, radio talk-show host Ken Coleman, Chick-fil-A posted the following message on its Facebook page:

“The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender. We will continue this tradition in the over 1,600 restaurants run by independent owners/operators. Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”

But pick your metaphor: The cat’s out of the bag; the toothpaste is out of the tube. Once you’ve said something, you can’t take it back. And that could prove to be a costly lesson.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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