A PSA on CFA
Note: Updated 8/2/12. See amendments and new links.
It's been about two weeks since Dan Cathy's interview with Baptist Press and subsequent interview with the Ken Coleman broke through the media haze to be a national story stretching from Atlanta to Chicago and Boston. From the start, I decided to take a "wait and see" approach, primarily because I've already written a decent amount about Chick-fil-A as a business and activist organization (although much of that was published before the story broke last year from Pennsylvania). But I also wanted to see what people were talking about, what they wanted to know about, and if I could shed any light on what was said and why it matters. Sorry if that sounds calculating and self-promotional. I swear it's not. (Well, maybe a little bit.)
After a few back-and-forth's with folks on Facebook and Twitter, it seemed best that the best thing to do was draft up a cash flow map for Chick-fil-A, primarily because that hasn't been talked about in any bird's-eye-view way in the press. You can catch a medium sized version of it here as well. I leave it up to you to make what you will of this map. I suspect it will both confirm your suspicions or inclinations but also make you aware of a thing or two you might not have known. In any case, read this in the spirit of a PSA - a public service announcement for the sake of providing the info everyone needs to support what they're saying or not saying. Ok, yeah, I guess this is quite self-promotional.
Do know a few things first. It doesn't show what percentage of every dollar that drops in Chick-fil-A's till goes where. Rather, it shows what buying a chicken sandwich (or any other item off their menu) does for Cathy, the company, and the larger socio-economic and political arrangements that CFA has embedded itself in for the past forty-five years. I also have probably left out a few things, especially in terms of operational costs that a chicken sandwich sale cover and the multiplier effects in given communities. There's also no accounting here of the conversations and salvos that have happened in the public sphere. It's been diversity displayed. (Consider briefly the range among evangelicals from the culture war calls of Mike Huckabee for a "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" to the conciliatory appeals of Rachel Held Evans.) But I could only fit so much on a Post-it note.
I can clarify or amend via the comments section. But here's a heads-up on what's described here.
OPERATIONS -- This refers to operational costs particular to any franchised company: pay for operators/managers at local restaurants, overhead and supply for local restaurants, payroll for employees, capitalization for the company opening new locations, etc. Operators at Chick-fil-A are like independent small business owners, giving a certain cut to the front office in Atlanta but generally recycling whatever they earn each quarter back into their own restaurant. Few operators own or operate more than one CFA location. Hence, they retain a certain independence in hiring and firing decisions and even in whether they parrot or object to upper management's take on business decisions or the current controversy. Case in point: The CFA location in Decatur, a relatively diverse community in east Atlanta, tried to come out in front of the story and defuse any public perception that they were discriminatory, at least in terms of in-store service or public service. It stopped short of gay rights advocacy, though they certainly went farther than Cathy in noting "sexual orientation." (Amendment: A New Hampshire CFA operator apparently asked to be a sponsor for an upcoming gay pride event.)
Most operators are married men. None, I would guess, are openly gay (although some of their employees are, albeit not openly so according to this Huffington Post article). Most restaurants shoot for the "kid-friendly" vibe common in other national fast-food chains (play ports, kids' meals, etc.) without being exclusively a "family" branded place and space like, say, ChuckECheese. They want teenagers, single adults, and, yes, people of any sexual orientation to come through their doors and buy the chicken. The bottom line is a bottom line, of sorts.
What might this mean in terms of any forthcoming boycotts? Hard to say, but a decision to boycott a local CFA will most likely directly affect that location first and the larger company last, although as YouGov recently reported, just the threat of boycott and public discussion of Cathy's comments have had an effect. More specifically, boycotts would generally lead to the cutting down of hours or firing for floor workers first, operational costs second, the larger company third, and the Cathy family last. This is because CFA places most of the risk and cost for running a CFA to the independent owner. This insulates the broader company from systemic risk; hence, the point of a franchise model they've adopted. The opposite is also true for any "buy-cotts" that Mike Huckabee or other conservative organizations may have planned. It would probably go first to the operator and floor workers, operations second, and so on.
WINSHAPE -- This is the independent, quasi-philanthropic wing of CFA. It's a sprawling, multi-node organization funded by a semi-independent trust that comes -- best I can tell -- from the Cathy family's own investments and from a blend of assets and apportionment related to CFA's past or current profits. It's more of the hands-on element of CFA, with the Cathy family having more direct input here than in other parts of the company. So, a dollar spent at CFA would certainly end up at WinShape eventually, but it goes in a few different directions.
It certainly would go toward WinShape's various marriage seminars and retreats, all of which operate off a heteronormative interpretation of what constitutes "marriage" and/or "healthy" adult relationships. Much like I suspect if an openly LGBT employee wanted to move up the ladder at CFA, a gay couple would not be able to get a ticket for these seminars and retreats if WinShape became aware of their sexuality. More than likely, they also would not fit with WinShape's party line regarding marriage and sexuality. All of WinShape's marriage programs operate off a model of interpreting sexuality not in a 14th Amendment mode of citizenship. There is no awareness that homosexuals are an embattled or excluded minority - although their sense of "winning back" the culture's "definition of marriage" exudes a certain sense that WinShape has in mind what counts as (to use that old Cold War word) "sexual deviance." Regardless, WinShape unmistakably operates with the assumption that "straight male+straight female+ straight kids" is a normative mode of long-term human bonding, which it actively assumes is "best" in pretty much any and all contexts. The link between heterosexual bonding and nationalism, however, is not made with the same overtones as Cathy's threat about divine judgment visiting those who "shake their fist" at God by saying "'we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.'" This style does not quite fit WinShape's more soft-focus romanticism about straight marriages, although it's not necessarily out of step with what a Cathy family member has said before in terms of linking nationalism to sexuality.
A lot of churches from across the denominational and political spectrum, however, use WinShape marriage materials and their retreat center at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. Other parts of WinShape include rustic "character building" camps for kids and teenagers that are similar to VBS camps or just your typical tick-n-poison oak summer camp. WinShape also operates a number of programs for foster kids, providing them mentoring relationships similar to a Boys and Girls Club as well as tutoring, "life skills" training, and whatnot. More recently, the Cathy's set up an international wing to WinShape. It sponsors what might be best described as a kind of as-spiritual-if-you-want-it-to-be missions trip to over two dozen countries. These are mostly work programs for CFA employees and other interested parties and they sometimes work with in collaboration with other non-profit's like Georgia-based Habitat for Humanity or anti-hunger groups.
CFA > MCDONALD'S -- This is just my way of referencing the fact that a lot of people see CFA as a kind of fast food company that's somehow "exceptional" and outside of our Fast Food Nation, offering "better" service, demonstrably more "healthful" food choices, "guilt-free" chicken entrees, and so on. ("Better," "healthful," and "guilt-free," of course, are often in the eyes of the beholder.) In other words, CFA is often treated like the Whole Foods of fast food. Thus, customers see their money going toward a company that they see as filling a niche and showing their brand loyalty. That's a complicated dynamic that I'm not going to get into here, but it's certainly a facet of what the consciously-dropped dollars are "voting" for and it's certainly something that CFA markets through their in-store advertising. It also takes on a different meaning among those consumers who are aware of CFA's Christian affiliations -- perhaps if only instinctively or impressionistically through its Sunday closing policy -- and support it for that sake. For those who deem the recent controversy as a planned hit on CFA (or, as Huckabee put it, "vicious hate speech and intolerant bigotry from the left"), then they will likely show their support for Cathy and/or CFA in the public sphere through organized buycotts and through a more slow-rolling buycott over the next few weeks and months. This, however, I expect to be highly localized and particular to more conservative-leaning areas of the country.
DONATIONS -- CFA donates a lot of money to a lot of places, including local non-profits and national organizations that most folks would identify as apolitical or even progressive (albeit not so on matters of sexual citizenship or definitions of legal marriage). The Huffington Post's initial story and few follow-up's have focused on various-sized donations since 2003 to organizations like Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Marriage and Family Legacy Fund/Marriage CoMission, and Exodus International. A $1,000 donation also went to the Family Research Council, which has actively spread disinformation about what it considers "the homosexual lifestyle" and has been deemed a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center. CFA's top brass may or may not support other conservative organizations of various sizes, styles, and influence. Regardless, odds are that, if they do, such organizations promote heteronormative marriage in law and culture and what many evangelicals see as "biblical" or "complementarian" modes of male/female relating. There's presumably other examples of local operators or employees donating to more local or regional versions of such groups as well as to churches where such views can be like water to fish. But I think it's reasonable to presume that there are examples of local operators and plenty of employees who don't give a whit about the culture wars or privately or publicly exhibit a range of opinions, from sit-on-the-sidelines tolerance to active support.
It should also be noted that CFA donated time and space to a GOP candidate in the 2008 election cycle, although it was only at their headquarters and the matter of marriage or gay rights did not come up. (Gear up the Wayback Machine, though. "Radical Islamic extremism" did come up, as did John McCain's support for green initiatives as a national security interest and gift to the grandkids.) It should also be noted that the number of CFA-derived dollars going toward the groups listed above is still in the low millions. Some have reportedly received just a few thousands of dollars here and there. This is not small peanuts for these organizations, especially given the evangelical tendency to make a dollar stretch for the sake of their crusade. But it's no Sheldon Adelson.
CATHY FAMILY -- Obviously, whatever CFA makes helps to make the Cathy family quite wealthy. S. Truett Cathy -- the founder and company patriarch -- has usually kept a low profile on how much he's worth, but Businessweek recently reported that his two sons, Dan and Bubba, probably just pushed past the billionaire's mark. All are Southern Baptists so a portion of their personal wealth -- they're reportedly devout tithers -- goes toward that denomination, both at their local church and up through the denomination.
PERDUE, WAYNE FARMS, ETC. -- As I've written about elsewhere, the big suppliers of all those chickens for CFA are large scale agri-chicken industries. Such companies are big players in the rural and small town economies of the South and portions of the Midwest as well as employers that repeatedly catch investigations from OSHA for their under-the-table recruitment, employment, and outright abuse of low-wage workers, both U.S.-born and immigrant/migrant workers. This is important to keep in mind for many reasons but for those wanting to boycott CFA, it is instructive. Since CFA cannot do business without their chickens, in terms of structural impact, LBGT protests may want to focus on the chicken, not Cathy. Consider what a 30% change in the price of chicken would do to CFA in terms of operations. But also keep in mind attendant costs down the line to those working the floor at local CFAs or on the line at a Perdue plant. Especially in the latter case, chicken workers are some of the most vulnerable laborers in the fast food economy. I'm not telling you what to think, but it is another facet of how CFA and Cathy's activism politics is embedded in larger economic arrangements that do ebb and flow according to demand and supply. They are also embedded in political structures which state legislatures and the feds generally support via appropriations and regulatory policy because Americans depend on and demand cheap chicken.
COMMUNITY -- CFA aims like a lot of fast food companies to be corporate glocalists. In other words, they hope to create networks of support from local communities and institutions, from Chambers of Commerce to churches to non-profits. Churches certainly support CFA and vice-versa, so a dollar paid at a local CFA may be tossed on top of dollars that the local church -- sometimes evangelical, but often not if in a more cosmopolitan area -- just gave CFA for a catered chicken platter or fund-raising drive. This is similarly true for how local schools tap CFA for sales at the school or as supplements to the school budgets, just like a lot of fast food and cheap food companies do at public schools and on college campuses. But its involvement in local communities also has extended in the past to the promotion of "entrepreneurial" student programs intended for voluntary or required use in school homerooms. CFA also counts its multi-million dollar college scholarship program for CFA employees and others as a part of its "community outreach." So, a dollar given to CFA presumably helps such outreach; a dollar taken away does not.
FINAL THOUGHTS -- I'll leave things off with a copy-and-post from my FB wall regarding the ultimate political payouts of Cathy's comments and why CFA matters for this present moment in scholarship and public discourse.
[It will be interesting to see how Cathy's statements might] play out for the GOP since [Mitt] Romney is trying to present himself as a nice-n-smiley, religiously-inclined, just-plain-folks businessman/conservative in the same vein as [S. Truett and Dan] Cathy. [D]espite their differing religious backgrounds, [all are promoters] of "free speech," "religious freedom," "free enterprise" and other slogans/ideas that some evangelicals and conservatives have rallied around CFA with, seeing all those things under attack from the POV of American evangelical martyrdom. [Little wonder they ended up on a stage together at Liberty University's commencement last May.]
Since Obama and [the Democratic Party] have affirmed Biden's position, it'[ll] also be interesting to see how this plays out for them. If this lasts beyond next week. Obama has little to gain politically in the two swing states he needs to win from commenting on CFA, unless Romney makes him. Hence, he'll probably do some political calculating and stay mum.
[Whether this story does or doesn't have legs it is] a litmus test, in a way, of contemporary evangelicalism. Much could be said the same about it as a litmus test of the gay rights movement, the connections between local and national conversations about sexuality and citizenship, the nature of consumerism as politics and so on.