The promotion wasn't organized by Chick-fil-A itself, but Wednesday's Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day resulted in what the company called a "record-setting day."
Thousands of supporters turned out to hundreds of Chick-fil-A locations across the country to show their support of the chain in the wake of the controversy spawned by President Dan Cathy's affirmation of traditional marriage as well as its large monetary donations to groups opposed to gay marriage.
"We are very grateful and humbled by the incredible turnout of loyal Chick-fil-A customers on August 1 at Chick-fil-A restaurants around the country," said Steve Robinson, exec VP-marketing, in a statement. "While we don't release exact sales numbers, we can confirm that it was a record-setting day. ... 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."
Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was not a company promotion. It was the brainchild of former Arkansas governor and 2008 Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee, who created an event on Facebook in the wake of criticism from marriage-equality activists who were angered by Mr. Cathy's comments.
Mr. Cathy's comments weren't exactly anything new for a company long known for adhering to a biblical approach to business. Chick-fil-A doesn't open on Sundays and it's donated to "family-values" groups in the past. But Mr. Cathy's remarks prompted a wave of criticism from gay-rights activists, the Jim Henson Co., which worked with the chain to produce toys for kids meals, and officials from Boston and Chicago. Many activists are angered by the company's donations to what they call anti-gay organizations such as Exodus International, which they say work actively to prevent the community from being able to marry.
According to the Facebook event page, the goal was simple: "Let's affirm a business that operates on Christian principles and whose executives are willing to take a stand for the Godly values we espouse by simply showing up and eating at Chick fil-A on Wednesday, August 1. Too often, those on the left make corporate statements to show support for same-sex marriage, abortion or profanity, but if Christians affirm traditional values, we're considered homophobic, fundamentalists, hate-mongers and intolerant."
Mr. Huckabee's event has created a huge showing of support for the chain, with images in local news coverage showing lines around the building at lunch time, and a long stream of cars waiting for the drive-thru. A Chick-fil-A location in Prattville, Ala., got so much traffic that it had to shut down early.
"The response has been unbelievable. It's been a line out the door all day, since about 6 a.m.," Chick-fil-A manager Stuart Rogers told local media outlet WSFA.
Chick-fil-A is one of the fastest-growing chains in the country. It is the No. 2 chicken chain in the U.S., behind KFC, and has about 1,600 locations in the U.S. at the end of 2011, with more than $4 billion in system-wide sales, according to Technomic. It has 24.3% market share in the category, while KFC has 27%, about 4,800 locations and $4.5 billion in 2011 U.S. sales.
While many of Chick-fil-A's supporters are calling it a free-speech effort, for gay-rights activists, the issue is less about Mr. Cathy's remarks and more about the company's donations to pro-traditional marriage groups such as the Family Research Council. In a statement it released a couple weeks ago, Chick-fil-A said that it intended to stay out of the policy debate moving forward, but the company hasn't said yet whether it will cease donations to the organizations.
The chain is unlikely to be affected in its core regions in the Southeast, but it may run into trouble elsewhere. In New York, the Chick-fil-A location at New York University has been the subject of much debate, as in recent months the school's Student Senators Council considered bringing a resolution before the University Senate recommending a ban on the marketer. Nothing came from that effort, but yesterday, John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, told FoxNews.com that , given recent news, the matter will be revisited by school officials. "The University Administration will ask the University Senate to take up the issue of Chick-fil-A's status on campus again when it reconvenes this fall to make a recommendation on how to proceed," he said.
At least one person within the Chick-fil-A system has come out in support of gay rights. Anthony Piccola, a franchise operator in New Hampshire said that he is donating sandwiches to the New Hampshire Pride Fest. The company did not comment on Mr. Piccola's move.
As for more upcoming events on this issue, Mr. Robinson said in the statement, "We understand from news reports that Friday may present yet another opportunity for us to serve with genuine hospitality, superior service and great food." That appears to be a reference to an event that the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation organized called National Same-Sex Kiss Day at Chick-fil-A. On the Facebook invitation, GLAAD said that it would "like to clarify that this event was NOT created as a response to Mike Huckabee's appreciation day, this event was created on July 19, several days before Mike Huckabee announced his plans for Wednesday August 1."