The late S. Truett Cathy said his Chick-fil-A stores closed Sunday as a silent testimony to his Christian faith. The newest franchise operator, too, opts for silence, declining an interview about the Westborough opening on Thursday. He’s too busy to talk, a spokeswoman says.
Too shrewd, I would say. Presumably, Mike Lawson, proprietor of the first stand-alone Chick-fil-A restaurant in the Boston area, has learned a lesson hard-won by Cathy’s son, Dan, whose denunciation of same-sex marriage thrust the best little chicken shop in the United States into an unwinnable war. Bigotry doesn’t work in the US marketplace. But boycotts don’t either.
Hobby Lobby, Cracker Barrel, Whole Foods, and Exxon are among companies that sell on, unmolested by noisy indignation, past and present. In this, the free market is agnostic: Build a better chicken nugget, and you can pretty much say what you want, so long as the offended parties are in the minority and you’re not dissing puppies.
Hence, Chick-fil-A restaurants, even those north of Virginia, run double drive-through lines that are frequently full, even in off-hours, and Lawson’s team is preparing for people to camp out in Westborough for a chance to win a meal each week for a year. What happened in 2012 — Tom Menino’s bluster, Northeastern University’s repudiation — stayed in 2012. Outrage has a short shelf life, it seems.
Can a product ever be separated from the person pushing it — whether filmmaker Woody Allen or an athlete like Tiger Woods or Ray Rice? At first, outraged consumers always say no. But the market is like a parent who says no at first, and then, when pressed, graduates to “I don’t think so” then “well, maybe, if you’re good.” Wait long enough, and maybe we’ll forget why we objected.
The market forgives, even when individuals do not. It is a necessary absolution in a country nearly 3,000 miles wide, for no one can run a business in a nation so diverse without stamping on cornfields, offending a wide swath of citizens even while earnestly attempting to do the right thing. If Cathy had backed same-sex marriage and donated money to gay and lesbian causes, evangelical Christians would have been the swath of the day, shunning new stores and urging boycotts that would have had all the wan influence of the Southern Baptist Convention’s eight-year boycott of Disney. Maneuvering the market is like driving a curling New England road in the evening mist: No matter how carefully you drive, moths will be hit, and contrition won’t matter.
Since Lawson isn’t talking, it’s unclear if Chick-fil-A is bracing for protests in Westborough, if the lack of the chain’s famous “Eat Mor Chikin” billboards along Route 9 (there are none) is an attempt to avoid vandalism or simply an indication that there’s no need for further promotion. (Its Facebook page is peppered with “wicked excited” comments, and the restaurant says it gave out more than a 1,000 chicken sandwiches at the MetroWest YMCA last week.) There may be some residual huffing, but for the sake of the 80-plus employees — our neighbors — let’s hope it soon settles down. Continuing to hold a grudge against Chick-fil-A is, in some ways, as productive as railing against the Confederate flag. There will always be pockets of resistance, but by and large, that war is done. Of people younger than 34, seven in 10 support same-sex marriage, and that number is only going to grow.
I suppose Cathy slammed me, a single mother, too, when he said, “We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are all married to our first wives.” Many same-sex married couples in Massachusetts clear that family-values bar better than I. But no offense meant, and none taken. I’ll steer through the drive-through gladly with my ring-free left hand. In the continuing struggle for disparate people to unite under a single flag, it can’t hurt if we all chicken up.
Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe.