Chris Peatfield was one of hundreds that flocked to Chick-fil-A restaurants across the Sacramento area Wednesday to show support for the fast food eatery.
The Southern chain has been under fire over its CEO's attack on gay marriage last month. After gay activists called for a national boycott, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee rallied supporters of traditional marriage to come out and eat chicken – a symbolic gesture intended to oppose gay marriage and to support free speech.
"I'm here to support family values," the 49-year-old Peatfield said at the Chick-fil-A outlet on Alta Arden Expressway in Sacramento.
The Alabama native was traveling with his wife and three daughters on a road trip visiting several state capitals, but when he heard what was happening, Peatfield said, he just had to show up.
Hundreds of patrons occupied tables and stood in line – waiting for their fill of chicken sandwiches, while employees struggled to keep pace.
A similar scene played out at Chick-fil-A outlets across the nation Wednesday.
Joshua Paul, owner of the Alta Arden franchise, emphasized that the event wasn't sponsored by Chick-fil-A, but he nevertheless prepared for it. "We brought in extra food," he said.
Last month, the chain's CEO, Dan Cathy, ignited a firestorm of controversy with his comments on gay marriage. The millionaire has been known to contribute to organizations opposing gay marriage.
"I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,' " the deeply religious Cathy said in a radio interview.
Gay activist groups then went on the offensive – calling for a national boycott of the chain and urging same-sex kiss-ins at restaurants.
Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel hinted last week that he might oppose Chick-fil-A's plan to establish its first free-standing Chicago restaurant.
"Chick-fil-A's values are not Chicago's values," Emanuel said.
The overwhelming backlash from gay marriage groups prompted Huckabee, a Republican, to stage a counter protest.
He went on Facebook last week to mobilize supporters, declaring Aug. 1 "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day." As of Wednesday afternoon, 650,000 people had signed up on Facebook to attend the event.
Cathy's public comments last month have opened up corporate America's social values to public scrutiny. Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who openly supports gay marriage, contributed $2.5 million on Friday to a fund opposing a referendum that seeks to overturn Washington state's gay marriage law.
Alta Arden franchise owner Paul said there was one protester holding a sign outside his store in support of gay marriage. But by 1 p.m., the protester was nowhere to be seen – only throngs of people waiting to get their chicken sandwiches remained.
Carmichael resident Eloah Ralphs, 73, came to Chick-fil-A for her birthday. She had been to the chain once before, but she said "I'm going to be coming here a lot more often now."
Many framed the issue as more about free speech than religious values.
"This guy is getting a bad rap for exercising his freedom of speech," patron Frank Benson said. "And that's not right."
The Kingman, Ariz., native was traveling with his wife, Karen – it was her first time eating at the chain.
Benson's sentiments echoed throughout the building.
"We should all have a right to our own opinions," said Sacramento's Wendy Day, 59.
The fast food behemoth downplayed the significance of the event. The restaurant has over 1,600 outlets across the the country, with four in the Sacramento area.
Other Chick-fil-A restaurants in the region experienced similar turnouts. The owner of the Roseville franchise said hundreds showed up for food, with minimal protesters. No significant clashes between Chick-fil-A supporters and protesters were reported across the nation.
Joyce Valderrama of Antelope brought her two nieces to the Alta Arden outlet. The girls, ages 7 and 10, were told why they needed to come out to the restaurant.
"They had a talk with their parents ahead of time about what was going on," Valderrama said. "They agreed that marriage should be between a man and a woman."
Mario Guerrero, president of the Stonewall Democrats of Sacramento, a group that advocates for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, said Wednesday's event wasn't a "good indicator of what's really going on."
"Supporters of the restaurant are out today – one day," Guerrero said. "That doesn't tell the whole story. We have to look at their support on a daily basis."
Chick-fil-A issued a press release saying that it "does not comment publicly about our sales figures or volume."
Downtown Sacramento resident Dale Reynaldo, 60, a self-described moderate, said he doesn't oppose gay marriage but is concerned about free speech.
"I'm just here to support good decent people," Reynaldo said.