Discover more from Nothing New Under the Sun
Chicken Sandwiches for the Soul (Sunbelt #4)
Chick-Fil-A globally expands with restaurants and marriage retreats that protrude an evangelical corporate mission.
The rise of fast food in America is a factor of rapid technological achievements in the production of food and in the transportation of humans. America’s postwar spoils include the rapid development of a nation entering its young adulthood but still reckons with the perils of immaturity, as seen through its socioeconomic development. A major factor of the academic “Sunbelt” is its reliance on private enterprise to nurture communities rather than public entities. Companies originating from a more traditional Southern culture often use their corporate power to promote their religious and cultural values. One corporate group that accentuates this latter-century American trend is the Cathy family, who operate the titanic affairs of a popular fast-food chain called Chick-Fil-A.
Much of the negative press around Chick-Fil-A stems from its evangelical stance on marriage and how that acts as an affirmative force for overtly bigoted opinions on the topic. Chick-Fil-A’s relationship with marriage as an economic and social model has a larger history with another Cathy organization, Winshape Foundation. This foundation would aid the older Cathy (and still today) in sponsoring marriage retreats and adventures because his family’s view of marriage was its “biblical definition” being vital to the proliferation of his preferences for a more traditional national culture. Also through this entity, the Cathys are able to inject political advocacy into their flagship product without it overtly falling under the Chick-Fil-A label.
Still, the Chick-Fil-A restaurants had already been staging grounds for church events and conservative youth events that exude a corporate culture that reflects S. Truett Cathy’s Southern evangelical Christian values.
The success of Chick-Fil-A comes from its signature chicken sandwich, which deep fries a breaded boneless chicken breast and tops it with pickles before serving it between two sumptuous brioche buns. The stores were initially marketed through the rise of shopping malls in the late 1960s to the early 1980s. However, as mall construction stagnated, and eventually decreased, Chick-Fil-A restaurants began cropping up in the growing suburban and exurban strip malls that also facilitated the rise of other “big box” stores.
These development decisions were part of a larger suburbanization in the last half of the twentieth century that phased out investment from central cities into corporate sprawls located along newly built interstates. This also helped create racist modern myths that city dwellers and spaces were naturally lazy and unworthy of the luxuries that mostly White and well-funded suburban spaces afforded due to the latter’s natural pretension to work hard and stay faithful.
Darren E. Green writes about the chicken restaurant’s development beginnings in his essay, The Marketplace Missions of S. Truett Cathy and Chick-fil-A:
In the urban South as elsewhere, the desegregation of public spaces and downtown businesses encouraged droves of residents and business owners to relocate to the suburbs, with shopping malls serving as important nodes of community and commerce. As a result, malls became paradoxical places. On the one hand, economic standing and automobile ownership, rather than segregation laws, determined access. On the other hand, the creation of capital and value in the space of the shopping mall joined with the suburban migration of money, housing, schools, jobs, and public services to advance a nationwide postwar trend - the bifurcation of metropolitan areas into growing suburban zones and “blighted” central city zones defined by an “urban crisis” of depopulation, declining tax bases, increasing unemployment, higher rates violent crime, and segregation by race and residence. The poorer people of color - African Americans in particular - living in central city districts often suffered most from such restructurings became one of the most notable aftereffects of “mallification” and the move to a suburban South and nation.
As Chick-Fil-A moves out of malls, it still continues to contribute to the death of central cities:
Stand-alone shopping strips, accessible only by automobile and often anchored by '“big box” stores like Walmart, Best Buy, or Home Depot, became more common, challenging the dominance of public shopping malls and encouraging fuller privatization of American life.
The Chick-Fil-A Sandwich and the Global Sunbelt
Chick-Fil-A’s rise also meant the growth of the Winshape Foundation (mentioned earlier) - and the rise of Winshape Camps International. The goal was to bring evangelical Christian values with the company when forging global outposts and charity opportunities. Notably, Chick-Fil-A closes on Sunday to observe the Sabbath and hires young people within its conservative image of a Christian meritocracy and void of what some view as socially liberal excesses.
As Green describes:
Though Chick-fil-A restaurants hired mostly teenagers or young adults, Cathy tolerated none of the youthful rebellion, sexual license, surliness, or laziness that conservative Americans condemned as legacies of the 1960s and 1970s. The politics of hair and dress mattered for operators and employees alike. Applicants needs to have a ‘good general [physical] appearance’ and demonstrate, like operators, a ‘sense of significance’ to better their chances of employment at Chick-fil-A. “If a man’s got an earring in his ear and he applies to work at one of my restaurants,” Cathy told the Associated Press in 2000, “We won’t even talk to him. It’s not becoming for a man to wear an earring….I can’t take that risk.”
Chick-Fil-A restaurants became locales for church events and established viable political partnerships with overtly conservative organizations. The family business saw itself offering services for youth development, marriage counseling, and spiritual uplift that their ideology demanded the state could never do. This is parallel to other expanding operations in the postwar American Sunbelt (and eventually beyond) looking to usher in a privatized and pro-growth political and economic culture. In this regard, as the company expanded across the nation, it did so in a fashion that wore its evangelical, cultural, and policy beliefs on its sleeve. One operator equated one year’s annual meetings in San Diego to a religious revival.
Of course, when the company moves across the seas to spread its “marketplace missions” to other markets, it also brings along its religious and cultural baggage.
Green notes how the Chick-Fil-A marketplace mission can prove difficult in different economic and country contexts:
In 1995, only a few years after the end of apartheid and one year after the country’s first free elections, South Africa became another target market for Chick-Fil-A. “There’s a real vacuum there and a real pent-up demand,” Dan Cathy believed. “The doors are open.” With agreements for development assured by South African officials, such as Cape Town’s first black mayor William Bantom and President Nelson Mandela, the Cathys planned to open between eighteen and twenty restaurants in South Africa, with another nine to be placed in nine other African countries. But the South African market proved a harder nut to crack than expected, perhaps because the suburban environs that nurtured Chick-Fil-A’s business model did not exist there.
Green also notes that the family’s interest within this region defined as the Global South is because its collection of newly liberated nations roughly shared the “political and economic characteristics roughly similar to the South of Cathy’s youth.”
S. Truett Cathy, the founder of the successful evangelical brand, grew up in Depression-era Georgia.
Chick-Fil-A expanded not just in the Global South but all over the globe:
Chick-Fil-A’s decision to bring its conservative, religious, and cultural stances into the workplace also means drawing a clear circle around its cultural and political opposition, even if it that is an ever-expanding group.
Chick-Fil-A moved its chicken distributors during the last decades of the 20th century from a more local connection with the Goode Brothers Poultry Company to a larger, and more distant, Perdue Farms and Wayne Farms. There have been instances of hiring migrant workers at these distribution operations despite the company’s open conservative stances. Still, Perdue has made efforts in reducing antibiotic use in its chicken operations.
Like other conservative companies involved in the paradoxes created by the partnership between their need for globalized markets and their culturally right-wing viewpoints, Chick-Fil-A finds itself priding expansion within its narrow political context (and goal) while also seeing much of those achievements met with turbulence in the face of its own cultural blindspots. From its stance on same-sex marriage to its hypocrisy in the realm of globalization politics, Chick-Fil-A still offers an idealized suburban refuge for middle-of-the-road conservative America, as well as people naturally looking for a bubbled-in fast food venue for their kids to work.
However, it is idealism with overt cultural blindspots, as Green finally notes:
But as Cathy’s evangelicalism moralized the meritocracy of the suburbs and granted it divine sanction, it also ensured that people living and working in places like inner-city Atlanta or the chicken plants of the rural South or the underdeveloped corners in the global South were deemed marketplace sinners in need of conversion to the gospel of Chick-Fil-A. This is a message that overlooks and whitewashes much. It is also, however, a powerful one, as evidenced by Chick-Fil-A’s popularity and proliferation.
Chick-Fil-A made short films this past holiday reflecting values it sees fit for young people. I enjoyed these:
Nothing New Under the Sun with Steward Beckham is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.