Nothing turns a sandwich into a symbol faster than a company executive wading into politics, especially on a subject as divisive as gay marriage.
Chick-fil-A has reaped both complaints and praise in the past for contributions to organizations battling same-sex marriage, but those paled in comparison to the social media-fueled uproar that followed Cathy's comments.
Some called for boycotts. Others — including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — are urging supporters to buy Chick-fil-A food en masse on Wednesday, with about half a million people saying they will. Same-sex couples are planning kiss-ins at Chick-fil-A restaurants. A Pennsylvania woman in favor of same-sex unions quietly "occupied" a Chick-fil-A outlet in Mechanicsburg with a wipe-board sign and her knitting.
Twitter has been full of pro and con tweets, with Washington Mayor Vincent C. Gray's "I would not support #hatechicken" in the latter group. The mayors of Boston and Chicago said the company wasn't welcome in their cities.
And a conversation on Facebook among friends from Maryland grew into more than 6,000 people promising to give $6.50 apiece — the rough cost of a Chick-fil-A "combo meal" — to groups in favor of gay rights.
"I figured I'd invite a few of my friends, they'd invite a few, it might break triple digits," said Brian Real, 30, a University of Maryland doctoral student.
Gay marriage is on Marylanders' radar, thanks to a law that will legalize same-sex marriage in the state if it survives a ballot initiative in November.
Whether for their political stances or business practices, many companies have faced the ire of consumers — who then send a message with their wallets.
Boycotts in the 1960s helped pressure grape producers to sign contracts with farmworkers who organized to improve wages and conditions. Boycotts lost Anita Bryant her job as celebrity spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission in 1979 after a backlash against her campaign opposing gay rights. They were even a forerunner to the American Revolution, with Boston merchants boycotting all sorts of British goods, not just tea.
There's not much research on the revenue impact of boycotts. But a 2008 study by professors from Stanford University and the University of North Carolina found that calls to eschew French wine after France opposed the Iraq war had a real effect. The researchers estimated the total loss to French wine sales in the U.S. at more than $100 million, saying sales were 27 percent lower at the boycott's peak than they otherwise would have been.
"Some boycotts do not hurt companies at all — they're small, disorganized and the company didn't really sell very much to whoever's organizing the boycott anyway," said Rhonda Reger, an associate professor with the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "Other cases become very big very fast."
Her advice to CEOs? If you're selling to a mass market, "stay away from highly controversial issues."
Chick-fil-A might be thinking along those lines. In a statement saying the company's culture seeks to treat every person with respect, Chick-fil-A said, "Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena."
On the flip side, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his wife just donated $2.5 million toward efforts to preserve Washington state's law legalizing same-sex marriage.
Real, the University of Maryland student, supports gay marriage. He said he stopped eating at Chick-fil-A a few years ago after hearing the company donated to groups that lobby to block same-sex marriage. It is that, rather than Cathy's expressing his beliefs, that bothers him, Real said.
While more than 490,000 people have signed up for Huckabee's "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day," Real said his friends don't have the sway of a former governor with his own talk show.
Loudon, a Republican congressional candidate who lives in Pasadena, is among those planning to patronize Chick-fil-A on Wednesday. She says she agrees with Cathy about marriage, but what prompted her to organize an eating spree with a group of supporters at Anne Arundel and Prince George's locations were statements from the mayors of Boston and Chicago saying they would block Chick-fil-A from expanding in their cities.
(Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said later that he can't stop the company from setting up shop, only use his "bully pulpit," the Boston Globe reported.)
"I think that Chick-fil-A got a bad rap," Loudon said. "They're really a great organization. If nothing else, they support communities, they hire young people, and young people need jobs. … And then there's this freedom of speech issue. I think a person has a right to be able to say what they stand for."
Amanda Straw, who lives in the Harrisburg area, last week spent the lunch rush hours sitting at a Chick-fil-A table with a yogurt parfait, a drink, a blanket she's knitting for her cat and a wipe board expressing her frustration with the company's donations.
Her first message read: "My dad went to war to defend my rights. You just paid to take them away."
Straw, 29, a graduate student, said the Chick-fil-A employees treated her with the "utmost" courtesy. Some patrons asked what her messages were about, and she explained. But by Saturday, customers' comments turned nasty.
"It was a case of people who didn't agree having no legal recourse to remove me from the restaurant," said Straw, who wants the legal rights of marriage — such as the financial benefits that protected her and her mother after Straw's father died 20 years ago — extended to same-sex couples. "They just decided to come out and harass me instead."
Straw blogged about her experience, one of the many ways in which people are using the Internet to spread their opinions about Chick-fil-A.
Tony Patino, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Baltimore, said the nature of the flap is a warning to all companies.
"This is a testament to social media," he said. For mass-market companies thinking of wading into politically charged territory, he said, "the best thing to do is not say anything."