Let's face it, there are not many controversial fast-food chains in America when it comes to issues of religion, politics and culture (as opposed to super-size-me issues of fat, cholesterol, calories, salt and other forms of human passion). However, Chick-fil-A would be at the top of the list for a very simple reason -- this family-owned chain is centered in the Bible Belt and operated by people who are not afraid to say that they are Christians and that their faith affects how they run things. If you find that interesting, surf around in the following Google files for a few minutes -- click here and then here.
The big, symbolic details is that Chick-fil-A franchises are not open on Sunday.
Anyway, I was surprised to discover that this chain is a major player here in blue-zip-code Baltimore. I learned this in a breezy little business-section interview in the Baltimore Sun with Chick-fil-A president Dan T. Cathy. Here's the opening:
Move over, blue crab. Baltimore loves its Chick-fil-A.
That's according to Dan Cathy, president and chief operating officer of the fast-food chain. While on a recent swing through Baltimore, Cathy said the Baltimore-Washington area ranks as the highest average sales market, generating more per Chick-fil-A restaurant than any other market in the nation.
Chick-fil-A Inc. has built a following of devoted customers over the years with its chicken-heavy menu and quirks. Its ads use standing cows who encourage people to "Eat Mor Chikin." New store openings bring die-hard fans from miles away for a chance to win a year's worth of free weekly meals. And customers can ask for a behind-the-scene tour of the kitchen.
The focus of this interview with the visiting chicken executive is that fact that Baltimore was one of only two test markets for a new product that the chain has been testing -- a spicy chicken sandwich. Now, I know that fried chicken is a key element of the religion of food in the South, but this level of doctrinal innovation is not enough to get one accused of heresy.
Nevertheless, the Sun piece did briefly mention that Cathy is the son the chain's founder, who is identified as "a devout Christian whose religious beliefs inform company policies." Thus, readers were kind of asked to read between the lines in these questions at the heart of this interview transcript:
Q: How has Chick-fil-A weathered the recession?
A: Many of our operators decided not to participate in the recession this year. [Laughing] I think we have emotional equity. We have a lot of emotional endearment that has already been built in the minds of our customers, that while they may have to cut back on a lot of things, this is a special treat to eat Chick-fil-A. ...
Q: Chick-fil-A restaurants are closed on Sundays. Have you felt pressure to reconsider that policy?
A: There have been times that we have reaffirmed that decision. We don't operate outside the U.S. In the '90s, we thought there might be some markets internationally we might not go into because of our policy of being closed on Sunday. In the U.S., we're located in some theme parks, but we're not in all theme parks and a lot of stadiums because we would be required to open on Sundays.
We've forfeited a lot of business opportunities because of that policy. But I like to tell people that our food tastes better on Monday because we're closed on Sunday.
Near the end, the Sun reporter asked a very basic question and, frankly, I am surprised that this very blue-ink newspaper printed the answer. So, kudos to the brave editor who let this get into print.
Q: Is there anything else you want to add?
A: We didn't talk about our corporate purpose. What really drives us to do all this. It's a very simple statement: To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.
Now, that's sort of nice. That certainly sounds like Cathy is a Southern evangelical Protestant, but readers never find that out for sure. He's just another generic "devout Christian."
But here is my question: Is that enough? Is this a case in which the Sun team actually needed to press on an ask more pointed questions about the chain and its policies? In effect, I am saying that it would have been appropriate -- outside the Bible Belt -- to ask a few questions from the point of view of the chain's critics. I, for one, would have been interested in the answers.