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Chick-fil-A store owners seek distance from gay marriage debate

Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy's public opposition to gay marriage has thrust the chicken chain's local franchisees, such as Jeremiah Cillpam, into the crossfire of a bitter debate that has pitted the Muppets against Mike Huckabee

Some owners of Chick-fil-A restaurants are trying to distance themselves from the national debate over gay marriage sparked by the fast-food chain's chief executive.

Jeremiah Cillpam's Chick-fil-A restaurant on Sunset Boulevard straddles two of the city's largest LGBT populations, in Hollywood and West Hollywood. A 2002 demographic profile of West Hollywood identified 41% of the city's population as gay or bisexual males.

Cillpam said that after hearing of the protests Thursday, he circulated a letter that night on the restaurant's Facebook page, stating his intention to run his business apolitically.

"We strive to ensure that every guest receives amazing food and service regardless of belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender," he wrote.

Cillpam said he wrote the letter because he wanted to put a human face on his business. Both Cathy and the LGBT community have a right to free speech, he said.

"I recognize that I have a community that has gays and lesbians, and I love my community," he said.

The last few days have been relatively normal, Cillpam said, noting that he's fielded some angry phone calls and entertained a lone protester but that business remains steady.

"Customers have just been eating chicken," he said.

Online, it's a different story. The franchise's Yelp site has received 13 one- or two-star reviews in the last week, mostly for reasons unrelated to food or service. User David V's one-star review of the Hollywood franchise: "Shame on Chick-fil-a for their anti-gay support."

Comments made by chief executive Dan Cathy have sparked calls for boycotts, and officials in Boston and Chicago have said they oppose the restaurant chain locating outlets in their cities. Meanwhile, some Christian groups have come to the fast-food chain's defense.

In a recent interview with Baptist Press, Cathy said that although he doesn't consider Chick-fil-A a "Christian business," he does operate on "biblical principles."

"We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that," Cathy said.

In Laguna Hills on Thursday, about 35 people demonstrated at the grand opening of a eatery there.

But the owner of the new Laguna Hills store, David Sykora, said his eatery has nothing to do with politics. In an interview with the Orange County Register, he said he plans on "treating everybody with honor, dignity and respect.... We just want to serve everybody in Laguna Hills; that's our goal."

Nationally, the Jim Henson Co., creator of "The Muppets," has severed ties with the chain because of the controversy. But former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has urged opponents of gay marriage to eat at Chick-fil-A on Aug. 1. Gay-marriage supporters are planning to flock to the chain's restaurants two days later for a "National Same-Sex Kiss Day."

On both days, Cillpam said, he expects to do what he does every day: Serve up trays of chicken sandwiches and waffle fries.

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-- Frank Shyong and Melissa Leu
twitter.com/frankshyong

Photo: Jeremiah Cillpam, owner of a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Hollywood, poses with some of the food the restaurant serves. Credit: Jeremiah Cillpam

 
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