In an area of Florida dotted with mom ‘n’ pop BBQ restaurants, thousands of people flocked to Gainesville’s most commercial street Wednesday for fried chicken.
When Jerry Nash decided he wanted chicken, he drove 45 minutes from rural Chiefland to Gainesville for Chick-fil-A.
He then spent another 15 to 20 minutes driving around the parking lot on Southwest Archer Road, looking for a spot. And then Nash, 56, stood in a line that looped around the inside of the restaurant. He didn’t know what he was going to order, but it would be more than usual.
Like thousands of other North Florida residents, Nash and his wife, Dot, had specifically chosen Chick-fil-A to show their support for the restaurant chain and the company’s public stance against gay marriage.
When Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy told the Baptist Press in a July 16 article that he is “guilty as charged” of supporting the Bible’s heterosexual definition of marriage, public backlash and boycotts followed.
It doesn’t seem fair to Nash, a minister at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Fort White. It’s about people being able to say what they want, he said.
“All of a sudden that’s hate speech? That’s perversion and perversion of free speech,” he said.
Chick-fil-A supporters in the public eye also made a case for the chain. Former Republican presidential candidate and Fox News host Mike Huckabee followed Cathy’s announcement by proclaiming Aug. 1 as “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.”
He asked and Chick-fil-A received.
Although the company released a statement that declined to comment on sales figures, customers and orders seemed to spike. The Archer Road restaurant usually fills about 1,600 orders each day. On Wednesday, supervisor Ricky Delaney said 2,520 orders were placed. The restaurant in the Oaks Mall served a crowd that flooded the food court and trickled between the tables.
The Archer Road restaurant can legally hold 202 people, but the parking lot couldn’t hold all the cars. Lines snaked down the street, sometimes reaching as far east as Southwest 34th Street and as far west as Interstate 75.
Alachua County Sheriff’s Office Deputy C.J. Johnson pulled over and flipped on her lights, directing traffic until Gainesville Police could arrive. She got stuck while driving home from work around 6 p.m.
Cars piled up in the drive-thru line, wrapping around the building and splitting into segments that stood still for minutes.
Campaigners for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney used this to go from car to car, asking patrons to sign up as campaign volunteers.
Kasey Greenhalgh, a 23-year-old UF telecommunication senior, interns for the campaign and was called out to help when her manager needed an extra set of hands. He’d signed up 50 people in 30 minutes.
“We’re just trying to help support [the] people with traditional values who came out,” she said.
Patrons had to get creative to reach their chicken sandwiches. The parking lots at nearby restaurants Willy’s, Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q and Wendy’s were filled.
Some people parked across the street at Butler Plaza and dashed across six lanes of traffic to safety.
Teri Bracewell, 37, of Hawthorne, scoped out the parking lot and found a close spot to claim a kid’s meal. She heard about Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day through her church, Living Hope Family Worship Center in Florahome.
Her religion aligns her with Chick-fil-A.
“I support the fact that they support the Bible, and the Word says man and woman, traditional,” Bracewell said.
For Christina Holland, 39, of Alachua, the meal was supporting freedom of speech and religion. Her 15-year-old daughter, Sierra, was making a statement to the company.
Another group made a statement, but they were focused on the patrons and the drivers on Archer Road.
Members of the National Organization for Women stood in front of the restaurant, waving at cars and holding signs with slogans like “Homophobia should never be on the menu.”
The 10 or so men and women were met with honks, middle fingers and raised thumbs. A group of men jeered with slurs and “Go the f-ck home.” A woman leaned out of her car to shout “God loves you!”
Robbin Cochran, vice president of the National Organization for Women’s Gainesville area chapter, said the group respects the rights of Chick-fil-A and its supporters to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
But Cochran, a 29-year-old Santa Fe College astronomy student, said that idea goes both ways.
“By the same token, we have our First Amendment right to respond and freedom from their religion,” she said.
Some of the crowd, however, didn’t take sides. They just wanted some chicken sandwiches.
Twenty-year-old UF marketing junior Robbie Del Castillo started craving Chick-fil-A when he saw all the publicity the event was getting over the Internet.
He fought through the crowds with two friends so he could enjoy a grilled chicken sandwich, eight chicken nuggets, a medium fry and a Coke.
He supports free speech but doesn’t particularly care about the views of the company or its president.
“It’s good food,” he shrugged.
Contact Clare Lennon at [email protected].