Long lines of cars and more than 200 people snaked through the Chick-fil-A at Harbor Boulevard and Gisler Avenue on Wednesday, turning out for a fan-based event meant to support the chain restaurant under national criticism after its chief executive took a public stance against gay marriage.
Men, women and children — some coming from as far away as Riverside — stood in line for more than an hour and a half to order their waffle fries and chicken sandwiches during Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.
The line switch backed through the interior and wrapped around the exterior of the 163-person capacity building, though customers were patient and voiced few complains on the wait.
Though it was lunchtime, many people were there to express their support, citing their individual beliefs in free speech and religious liberties. The majority of the crowd, comprised of many Christians, said they heard of the event through e-mail, talk radio, church, Facebook and other social media platforms.
Vicki Parsons, a Tustin resident who runs a small Internet technology company in Santa Ana, stood in line with her daughter for an hour and 10 minutes, but said it was well worth the wait.
"The ability for a company to be able to believe what they want to believe and still have their doors open to whoever wants to or chooses to give their business — that's why I'm here," she said. "Yes, I am a Christian, but my strongest support stems from being a business owner. I want to believe what I want to believe and not be condemned for what I believe, and give people the freedom of choice, if they want to do business with us."
Newport Beach resident Ian Conger cited both business and religion as his reasons for dining Wednesday at the relatively new Costa Mesa location.
"This company is family owned, and they're putting their money where they want to and that's their right," he said. "Nobody should tell someone how they should spend their money. God is very good to my wife and I, and I feel God's going to be with us through this and he'll be with the opposer as well. He doesn't hate anybody."
Lake Forest resident Deanna Kirchen stood in line with her children to support the restaurant for religious reasons.
"I've been in line for over an hour, and I'm only about three quarters of the way through," she said. "I'm hungry and yes, we came here for lunch, but I wanted to support Chick-fil-A for having the cojones to stand up for biblical values."
All the tables were full as front-of-the-house staff hustled behind the counter to fill drive-through and inside orders. More employees hurried through the isles, bussing tables and keeping things clean for the throng of incoming customers.
Tammy Guadagno, owner-operator of the location, maintained her staff and multi-tasked to keep the restaurant's interior ready for turnover during the rush.
"We're just serving lots of chicken," she said. "But this is something we actually did not promote because it's not about that for us. It's strictly a fan-based event. The biggest thing I want folks in Costa Mesa to know is that every person all day, every day is welcome in our Chick-fil-A."
Countering this event, a national "Kiss-in," where the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, community plans to stand outside Chick-fil-As and kiss one another in support of their beliefs, is scheduled for Friday outside of the Harbor Boulevard location, among other stores.
Kevin O'Grady, executive director of the Center Orange County, advocating on behalf of the local LGBT community, takes a firm stance against Chick-fil-A's financial endorsements. He was at a similar Appreciation event in Tustin on Wednesday with a group from the center. He said that people attending the event were polite and respectful to his group.
"From the center's perspective it's not just about free speech," he said. "[Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy] has the right to say what he likes, just as we have the right to protest.
"But Chick-fil-A takes it further than that. They give money to groups that work against LGBT rights. So there is a correlation between people who give their money to Chick-fil-A and those who act against LGBT groups. It was really saddening to see that many people in line supporting a company that discriminates against a group of people."
According to the company's website, Chick-fil-A has more than 1,615 locations in 39 states and is the second largest quick-service chicken restaurant chain in the U.S., grossing $4.1 billion in sales last year.
In a prepared statement, Chick-fil-A Executive Vice President of Marketing Steve Robinson said that in the future the company intends to stay out of the policy debate over same-sex marriage and to instead focus on their customers.
"The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender," the statement said. "Our mission is simple: to serve great food, provide genuine hospitality and have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A."