2012-08-09 / Front Page
Controversy comes to roost
Chick-fil-A CEO in news as company nears T.O. opening
The city’s first Chick-fil-A is set to open on Thousand Oaks Boulevard this month amid heated national debate sparked by the fast-food chain president’s public statement that he opposes same-sex marriage.
Same-sex marriage supporters have called for a boycott of the purveyor of a Southern-style menu while others have rallied behind the Atlanta-based business and the CEO’s right to free speech. A counterprotest in support of Chic-fil-A in Oxnard drew hundreds of people last week.
Here in Thousand Oaks, little has been said publicly about the restaurant’s impending opening, and Pam Leopold, a senior city planner, said she hasn’t received any complaints about the restaurant.
The 2,243-square-foot outdoor restaurant at 3771 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., the former site of Wienerschnitzel, is under construction; on Aug. 30 it will begin serving its signature chicken sandwiches and waffle fries.
A second Chick-fil-A location, at 449 N. Moorpark Road with 4,527 square feet of indoor and outdoor dining and a drive-thru, is under consideration. The company has filed a pre-application and is reviewing site design plans but has yet to submit a final application to take over the building previously occupied by El Torito restaurant, according to Leopold.
The Westlake Chick-fil-A has been in the works for almost a year—the project was approved by the city in September 2011—but its grand opening will come just weeks after CEO Dan Cathy said in an interview that he advocates “the biblical definition of the family unit,” setting off a firestorm of anger from the gay and lesbian community.
Christine Cortez, director of anti-bullying and LGBT support group James Cosper Stepping Stone Foundation in Newbury Park, said she won’t be welcoming Chick-fil-A with open arms.
“I think (the restaurant opening is) helping the community to stay very closed-minded against the LGBT community,” said Cortez, who added that it’s hard for the group to get local residents to attend their functions.
The director said Chick-fil-A’s presence will support the notion that the city is unfriendly to gays and lesbians.
“I would love to not have them in the community at all,” Cortez said. “I think any organization that doesn’t accept everybody and all aspects of people’s lives should not be allowed to do business.”
But Joseph Morris, franchise operator for Chick-fil-A’s Westlake site, said the company is inclusive of people from all walks of life.
“I’ve been with Chick-fil-A for 12 years,” he said. “I’ve never seen any type of discrimination going on inside the restaurants. As an individual franchisee, I would love the opportunity to serve everyone.”
Jamshid Damooei, an economics professor at Cal Lutheran University, said it’s unusual for a company to espouse exclusive views.
“(Cathy’s view) is a very narrow perspective of Christianity, but who am I to judge? That’s his prerogative. He can do whatever he likes,” Damooei said. “Most companies like to present themselves as inclusive. The majority of us cherish and support (inclusiveness).”
“Most CEOS do not (express) their personal view in such an open way. He took a risk,” Damooei added.
Still, it was a risk Cathy was entitled to take, he said.
“People have a right to express their opinion,” the professor said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. (Society is) battling with the issue of gay marriage. . . . Our city should be a place where businesses can come.”
Nevertheless, Damooei said Cathy’s comments have inadvertently directed attention to his company’s business practices.
“Customers look through the lens of management to see how they run their business,” Damooei said. “The comments of the president show very little tolerance. In many ways it puts the company under scrutiny. I’m interested in knowing what kind of labor practices they have and if they hire gay people.”
Ultimately, consumers will decide the success of Chick-fil-A, he said.
“Any controversy affects sales,” he said. “The ultimate test of a business is the awareness of consumers and their reaction.”
Reaction to Chick-fil-A in Westlake has been mixed, said Morris, who is midway through the process of hiring up to 80 employees.
“We’ve received comments on both sides of the fence, and my goal is to stay neutral,” he said.
Shoppers interviewed in the center where Chick-fil-A will open said they support same-sex marriage but welcome the chain to town.
Maria Lacagnina of Oak Park said Chick-fil-A has a right to be in the community even though she disagrees with its leadership.
“I will patronize (Chick-fil-A) because we need the business. We have a terrible economy. How can you restrict people from coming into our town when we need the business?” Lacagnina said.
“I think it’s really sad the way people are reacting,” she continued. “(Cathy) has a right to speak up. It’s a free country.”
Thousand Oaks resident Dawn Waltuch agreed.
“I think he should be allowed to do whatever he chooses. I think the whole thing is ridiculous,” said Waltuch, who did not say whether she supports or disagrees with Cathy.
Rob Edison of Moorpark said the restaurant should not be blocked from the community.
“I don’t agree with the CEO, but it’s a business. Let the marketplace sort it out. If people don’t want to go there, don’t go there. I’m just wary about censoring certain kinds of things,” Edison said.
Diane Worstell of Thousand Oaks said by phone that she’s against gay marriage and lined up at the Oxnard Chick-fil-A on the chain’s “appreciation day” Aug. 1 to show her support of the restaurant and its CEO.
“There was a long line the length of the building. It was very pleasant. People were happily standing in line,” Worstell said. “I support (Cathy’s) right to his religious beliefs.”
Cortez expressed disapproval of the high turnout at last week’s event.
“To me that’s sad. It shows how many people are for discrimination against certain sectors of the community,” she said.