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Love it or hate it, Chick-fil-A opens in WNY

Come Thursday morning, there will be two camps of people: those thrilled that Chick-fil-A has opened its first restaurant in Western New York and those who vow to boycott it.

One thing is for sure: If Chick-fil-A is not in the mouths of Western New Yorkers Thursday — it will be on their lips.

Hundreds of people are expected to line up for its 6:30 a.m. opening, traffic will likely snarl near the Walden Avenue restaurant and the buzz surrounding it will dominate the local news cycle and social media feeds.

But why?

Fans say the company's fast food is delicious and high-quality and that its service is above-and-beyond friendly.

But others criticize the chain for financially supporting organizations that lobbied against gay marriage and promoted gay conversion therapy.

For the Cheektowaga franchisee, owning a Chick-fil-A restaurant is all about serving the community.

Cassie Sheedy is excited about building the team of workers she'll spend her days alongside and about the community events she'll host. Sheedy is a mom of three, a St. Bonaventure graduate and former pharmaceutical sales rep who grew up on a cattle farm in Arcade, and waited six years for her own Chick-fil-A.

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Sheedy has read the negative tweets and comments about the restaurant chain.

"It truly breaks my heart to read those because the reality is, if they were to walk in here, I think they would feel really welcomed, and that's the whole community," she said. "I welcome them to come in and I'll buy them a cup of coffee or a waffle fries or a chicken sandwich and we can talk about my views and they'll find that it's incredibly inclusive here."

Her hiring process was "inclusive" and resulted in a "diverse" group of 104 employees who welcome everyone, she said. But she knows the controversy will continue to linger.

"It's hard for me because it's really personal. That's why we invite anybody who's curious about us or our viewpoint to come on in and learn about us," she said. "Experience it for yourself."

Sources of the controversy

Critics say the controversy is not about Sheedy, it's not about the employees — it's not even about the chicken.

It's about comments and policies the chain's founder, S. Truett Cathy and his son, Chick-fil-A chief executive officer Dan Cathy, have made against same-sex marriage and the money they've given to organizations that consider homosexuality a sin or have fought to block laws protecting people based on their sexual orientation and identity.

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Just on Monday, the restaurant was ousted from consideration for a New Jersey college campus.

In 2012, Dan Cathy was asked about the company's stance against gay marriage and told the Baptist Press, a religious news source, that he was "Guilty as charged."

"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 told the publication.

When the federal government granted some rights to same-sex couples, Cathy tweeted that it was a "sad day" for the nation and that the founding fathers would be "ashamed."

A company program for married couples, which worked in conjunction with other religious marriage ministries, did not allow same-sex couples to participate in its couples' retreats, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Chick-fil-A, through its founder's WinShape Foundation, has given millions of dollars to organizations such as Exodus International, which offered so-called gay conversion therapy and the Family Research Council, a conservative lobbying group that has fought same-sex marriage and adoption.

In 2012, Cathy said he regretted bringing the company into controversy and would no longer discuss controversial topics.

The controversy has turned off some customers. Others have said on social media they still eat at the chain despite disagreeing with its politics.

But the company owners' stances against gay marriage have also garnered it support and new customers.

During the thick of the same-sex marriage debate, as protesters vowed to boycott the chain and stage same-sex kiss-off demonstrations, supporters mobbed the company's locations, leading to a 30 percent spike in sales, according to estimates from consulting group Pacific Management.

Though they say no publicity is bad publicity, it's not just the controversy that kept Chick-fil-A in the public eye — especially not in Buffalo.

People have been petitioning the company for years to bring a restaurant here, and its fans are enthusiastic — and vocal.

Matt Davison, managing partner at the Buffalo firm Martin Davison public relations, said Chick-fil-A's fans organically generate the kind of buzz other brands have to work strategically to build. That buzz naturally attracts media attention, which gives the brand more exposure in its new market, he said.

"The restaurant’s customers tend to act as their biggest ambassadors and spokespeople," Davison said. "This echo chamber obviously gets noticed by media outlets who themselves are in the business of covering consumer interest.”

"Chick-fil-A has thus far weathered their more controversial moments without too much overall brand damage," he said.

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