Two former Republican U.S. presidential candidates encouraged people to eat at Chick-fil-A on Wednesday to show support for the chain restaurant as it weathers criticism for its president's public opposition to gay marriage.
Business was so brisk at one Chick-fil-A location in the company's corporate hometown of Atlanta that two employees directed traffic in the parking lot.
Dubbing the effort "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day," conservative former candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum said supporters would send a message about "traditional values" by eating a meal at one of the privately owned chain's more than 1,600 locations.
"The goal is 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," Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and current Fox News Channel personality, said on his website.
Chick-fil-A, known for its chicken sandwiches and waffle fries and for being closed on Sundays, came under fire after its president, Dan Cathy, told an online religious newspaper that he supports "the biblical definition of the family unit" and that supporters of gay marriage were "arrogant."
Gay marriage supporters have responded by calling for a boycott of the chain and seeking to block new Chick-fil-A outlets from opening. Same-sex couples around the country plan a kiss-in at Chick-fil-A restaurants on Friday.
Customers at a busy Atlanta location held varying views on gay marriage, but most of those interviewed by Reuters said they visited the chain on Wednesday simply because they like the food.
"One of the things that makes this such a great nation is that we respect one another for their opinions," said Hackwin Devoe, a 42-year-old government worker. "As long as the service and quality of the food continues to be good, I'm fine with that."
Devoe said he "does not find Biblical support" for gay marriage but does not oppose it.
Military retiree Edmond Matthews, 65, said Cathy was "speaking what he believes in" when he voiced opposition to gay marriage. "I agree with him," Matthews said.
The general manager of New Hampshire's only Chick-fil-A franchise reacted to the controversy by becoming a sponsor of the state's gay pride festival slated for Aug. 11.
The restaurant in a Nashua shopping mall "has gay employees and serves gay customers with honor, dignity and respect," general manager Anthony Picolia said in a statement released by the organizers of New Hampshire Pride Fest.
"I would challenge people to come have a conversation with me before they make assumptions or boycott my restaurant," he said.