The line outside an Englewood, Colo., Chick-fil-A, Aug. 1, 2012. (Timothy Skillern)
After several weeks of protests and mayoral catcalls stemming from Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy's controversial public comments against same-sex marriage, supporters of the fast-food chain--and traditional marriage--turned out in droves on Wednesday, jamming many of Chick-fil-A's 1,600 U.S. stores. And protesters, for the most part, stayed away.
In Englewood, Colo., an overcapacity lunch crowd spilled into the Chick-fil-A parking lot while dozens queued up inside.
By 11 a.m., 14 cars filled the drive-thru lane. A half hour later, the back-up had tripled: At one point, 37 vehicles slowly pushed through the parking lot in serpentine fashion, transforming the lot into a makeshift drive-thru. Three employees clad in neon-green parking vests directed traffic and took orders.
"As far as Chick-fil-A is concerned, it's business as usual," Vicki Getz, a supervising employee, told Yahoo News, declining further comment.
At a table outside, Evelyn Walker, 26, and her husband, Tim, 27, ate spicy chicken sandwiches and waffle fries in support of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day."
"Every company and owners have a right to say what they want to say," Tim Walker said. "Chick-fil-A has always been known to have a Christian basis, so I guess it's nice to see them stand up and show that--in more than just not being open on Sundays."
The couple, who live in nearby Littleton, said they don't eat fast food often, but supporting the chain was part and parcel to their faith.
"We believe that scripturally, in the Bible, the Lord states that marriage is between a man and a woman," Evelyn said. "And marriage between two women together, two men together is detestable to him."
More than 500,000 people RSVP'd to Huckabee's event on Facebook.
Chick-fil-A staffers take orders from cars in a drive-thru line in Englewood, Colo., Aug. 1, 2012. (Timothy Sk …
For those like John Mohler, 50, of Thornton, Colo., eating at Chick-fil-A on Wednesday was about defending free speech. Mohler said he doesn't share Cathy's belief--only his rights to air them.
"I'm not sure I agree with his position on gay marriage," said Mohler, who drove to Englewood from downtown Denver on his lunch break. "But I applaud the owner for speaking his mind, and that's why I'm here."
In Chicago, throngs of supporters flocked to the lone Chick-fil-A, where the line of customers snaked through the entrance and around the corner.
Linda Madden, 45, said that, though she and her co-workers regularly eat at Chick-fil-A, they "specifically chose Wednesday to drum up support." Steve Lolufs, 32, said he supports the company because "they always give back." Lolufs, originally from Atlanta, said that Chick-fil-A paid for him to attend high school, building a private school and offering scholarships.
Further up the line, Jessica Cather, 29, Dana Haskins, 42, and Sarah Touhy, 43, all stressed that though they support same-sex marriage, they also support the right to believe what anyone wants to believe.
"We support tolerance on both sides," Haskins said.
"Just because they don't support gay marriage, it doesn't make them a bad company," Touhy said.
Another patron solicited donations to buy lunch for Alderman Joe Moreno, who made headlines last month for opposing a Chick-fil-A in his ward.
Linda Smith, 54, didn't have time for the line. Instead, she gave someone else in line her money to spend to show her support. Smith said, "It doesn't matter what the president of the company's views are, as long as they don't discriminate in hiring," Smith said.
A man collects money to buy Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno lunch from a Chick-fil-A, Aug. 1, 2012. (Isa-Lee Wolf)
While there were no protestors, some supporters couldn't get away from work long enough to buy their meals. Deborah Irvine, 28, and Nicte Leeg, 27, wanted to support the company, but the line was too long. Irvine said she'd likely donate to the corporation instead.
"It's about freedom of speech and people being entitled to their own opinion," Leeg said.
The Chick-fil-A restaurant on the Univ. of Southern Mississippi's Hattiesburg campus was packed with area families. But few, if any, students turned out to support or protest Chick-fil-A.
"It's a shame that the gay community that asks for tolerance is so intolerant of other opinions," Josh Walker said as he ate lunch. "It's nice to have a company that stands by its morals."
"Since the company isn't doing anything illegal, I think the whole thing has been blown out of proportion," a patron who wished to remain anonymous, said. "I like the food, and that's what's important."
Desiree Ortega, a customer in the drive-thru lane in Englewood, agreed.
"They have good food," she said. "They're making up for the idiotic things they said."
In Missouri City, Texas, hundreds of customers descended on the Chick-fil-A despite 100-degree heat. (A Chick-fil-A employee who did not want to be identified said the company wanted to convey honor, dignity, and respect for all customers and "to glorify God.")
At 10:15 a.m. at the Chick-fil-A in Chandler, Ariz., the parking lot was relatively empty. Dan Thomas, 72, said he wasn't aware it was Appreciation Day.
"Are they giving anything away?" Thomas asked.
By noon, though, there were more than 30 vehicles in the drive-thru line, and the restaurant was over capacity.
At the Chick-fil-A in the Glenbrook Square Mall in Fort Wayne, Ind., a line of about 300 people stretched past the relatively empty Panda Express and Taco Bell. There weren't any protestors in sight.
The scene outside a Chick-fil-A in Englewood, Colo., Aug. 1, 2012. (Timothy Skillern)
"The Bible says marriage is between one man and one woman," Beth, a patron who declined to give her last name, said. "But the debate is not about the Bible. It is about whether the CEO of a private business has the right to voice his own opinions. If you say no, that's pretty darn scary."
"Does it really matter what he believes in?" Beth's friend Shannon added.
There was a similar scene at the Chick-fil-A at the Jefferson Pointe Mall in Fort Wayne. Cars were backed up in several directions, waiting for the drive-through, while TV reporters and cameramen camped out nearby. One customer held a large handmade sign with the Pledge of Allegiance--highlighting the words "liberty" and "justice."
In Port Charlotte, Fla., more than 50 customers lined up outside to enter the region's only Chick-fil-A.
"Chick-fil-A is a Christian-based company that stands on biblical principles," Amy McNamara, a mother of two from nearby Punta Gorda, said. "In one article I read, it suggested they are preaching hate. I disagree. They are standing for what they believe and I stand with them."
"[Chick-fil-A has] a right to express their own opinion," Jennifer Hoyt, 37, who dined at a Chick-fil-A in St. Petersburg, Fla., said. "Don't we all? Besides, I come here for the sandwiches, not the politics."
With reporting from Timothy Skillern in Colorado, Susan Braun in Indiana, Anthony Nguyen and Jeff Briscoe in Florida, Jennifer White in Mississippi, Cherri Megasko in Arizona, Deirdre Gilbert in Texas and Isa-Lee Wolf in Chicago.