Craig Goettsche just wants to serve Southern-style chicken sandwiches and waffle fries to his customers. Keep the pickles — hold the politics.
But like other Chick-fil-A franchisees across the country, Goettsche has found his business caught in the midst of the kerfuffle surrounding anti gay-marriage statements made by the company’s president, Dan Cathy.
The executive’s comments last month have ignited protests, counter-protests, boycotts and buy-ins at Chik-fil-As across the U.S. Cathy told a newspaper in July that the company was “guilty as charged” for supporting “the biblical definition of the family unit.”
Goettsche said he has encountered mostly friendly faces gathered at his Oxnard store. A throng of supporters were lined up around the corner on Aug. 1 as part of a national “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.”
There have been a few protestors as well, some touting signs reading “serve chicken not hate.”
Goettsche said he doesn’t mind. “We’ve had a few people here expressing their First Amendment rights,” he said. “And that is really what this is all about. The CEO of Chick-fil-A made his opinion known on a controversial topic. And that’s his right. But when Dan Cathy made those statements, he was speaking as Dan Cathy, not as the owner of this Chick-fil-A restaurant.”
The distinction between Chick-fil-A, the corporation, and local Chick-fil-A franchisees has been lost on many consumers, Goettsche said. He’d like to keep his restaurant on Rose Avenue squarely out of the political arena. “We’re just here to sell chicken and to provide extremely good customer service,” he said.
Chicken nuggets may be non-partisan, but Chick-fil-A politics have come home to roost elsewhere in the Tri-Counties as well.
In Santa Barbara, a Chick-fil-A that has been in the approval process for months hit a snag when the majority of the city’s Architectural Board of Review would not sign off on routine, last-minute landscaping tweaks for the proposed restaurant. Gary Mosel, Keith Rivera and Chris Gilliland did not vote on the minor approvals at an Aug. 6 meeting, apparently for political reasons.
The three now face removal from the city-appointed board, although a decision by the City Council was not final as of press time.
Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider chided the three ABR members in an open letter dated Aug. 8. She said she is a supporter of same-sex marriage and founding member of the Mayors for the Freedom to Marry Coalition, but that the city’s architectural approval process should be unfettered by personal views. Schneider said that “if a local gay-rights organization, a church or synagogue, a reproductive health care facility, or any organization, needed to apply to the city for design review, I would hope that the project would [be] approved or denied not based not on personal, religious or political beliefs but on the merits of the application.”
City Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss also wrote a letter to the three ABR members, asking them to resign from the board. “We cannot have applicants believe that the fate of their projects depends on their political outlook,” he said. “Ours is a city that welcomes diverse views, even those with which we may not agree.”
City planning staff later signed off on the changes to the patio seating and landscaping proposal, paving the way for the Chick-fil-A at 3707 State St. to do the necessary remodels.
The on-campus Chick-fil-A at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has not escaped the controversy either. After several written complaints urging the university to consider severing its franchise contract with the chicken chain in light of Cathy’s comments, Cal Poly said it would review its policies for outside vendors.
The Cal Poly Corporation has operated the Chick-fil-A franchise since 1994. Employees at the campus eatery are employees of the Cal Poly nonprofit.
Cal Poly Corporation Executive Director Bonnie Murphy said in an open letter that Chick-fil-A appears to have followed the law as an equal-opportunity employer and that the school would have no legal basis for terminating its contract early. In an email to the Business Times, she said the group would review its franchise contract when it comes up for renewal in 2015, as it does for all such agreements.
Ventura County’s second Chick-fil-A is slated to open in Westlake Village at the end of the month. Owner and operator Joseph Morris could not be reached for comment for this story. The new location will open Aug. 30 at 3771 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd.
New Chick-fil-A locations are typically selected and built out by the company, which then handpicks a franchisee to own and operate the restaurant. A call to Chick-fil-A’s press inquiries department was not returned.
The Baptist family that owns Chick-fil-A has over the years given millions of dollars to organizations fighting same-sex marriage, the New York Times reported.
“From the day Truett Cathy started the company, he began applying biblically-based principles to managing his business,” the firm said in a July 31 statement, referring to Dan Cathy’s father. Even so, the firm said it plans “to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena,” adding that more than 1,600 of its restaurants are owned by independent franchisees.
A family business
Chick-fil-A has been a part of Goettsche’s life since he was a teenager.
The Oxnard operator’s first job was tossing chicken nuggets at his hometown Chick-fil-A in Colorado when he was 15. Over the years, he worked his way up to area manager, overseeing two restaurants.
When he was 22, Goettsche applied to be a Chick-fil-A franchisee. Out of the approximately 20,000 applications the company received that year, he was one of 80 chosen, he said.
The Southern chain was on an expansion spree into California and Goettsche agreed to move to the state to open an Oxnard location. In June 2007, he opened the doors of the Rose Avenue restaurant.
It was a chance at business ownership and to grow with a company he’d long been loyal to. He had worked for other restaurant chains too, he said, but kept returning to Chick-fil-A. “I really liked what the company was about. Their morals aligned with my own. I liked that they are closed on Sundays. They put people first.”
Even so, he doesn’t want the gay-marriage debate to affect his business. His Oxnard store employs several gay workers, he said, and he’s happy to serve whoever comes in the door.
“There’s no room in the business sector for these kinds of politics,” he said. “If we’re talking about jobs and the economy, the business sector absolutely has valid opinions. But why do businesses feel that they have to have a say on every topic?”