That chicken sandwich will come with a side order of spin.
Chick-fil-A, a U.S. chicken restaurant chain whose president has spoken out publicly against gay marriage, has hired communications firm Navigator to lobby provincial and city government officials, amid angry protests surrounding the opening of the chain’s first major Canadian restaurant in Toronto last week. They’ve also hired the local office of a New York-based company to handle public relations.
Neither Chick-fil-A nor Navigator would comment on details of the contract, but official documents filed with the provincial lobbyists’ registry show the company has been hired to lobby Vic Fedeli, the Ontario minister of economic development, job creation and trade, as well as labour minister Monte McNaughton.
“Chick-fil-A will open its first major Canadian restaurant in Toronto this fall. To ensure a smooth launch, we want to facilitate open dialogue and foster long-term relationships with key decision makers in areas of interest to their operations,” said the entry in the lobbyists’ registry maintained with the provincial Office of the Integrity Commissioner.
Chick-fil-A has also hired Navigator to lobby city government officials about economic development, according to Toronto’s Office of the Lobbyist Registrar.
“As a matter of course, it is Navigator’s policy not to discuss our client engagements,” said Navigator spokesperson John Fenton. Navigator — whose company slogan is “When you can’t afford to lose” — is a firm best known for its work in crisis communications for high-profile clients such as former provincial attorney general Michael Bryant and ex-CBC host Jian Ghomeshi.
Chick-fil-A’s public relations in Canada are being handled by the Toronto office of Group SJR, a New York-based communications company which has been dealing with the company’s international expansion for the past two years. Group SJR declined to comment.
Chick-fil-A isn’t the only restaurant chain to hire lobbyists. Restaurant Brands International, the parent company of Tim Hortons, Burger King and Popeye’s, has high-powered lobbying firm Earnscliffe Strategy Group under contract, according to the federal lobbyists’ registry. Restaurants Canada, a national trade association for the hospitality industry, is itself registered as a federal lobbyist.
But there are thousands of RBI restaurants across Canada, including more than 4,300 Tim Hortons locations. So far, there’s just one Chick-fil-A, although the company has plans for 15 across the Greater Toronto Area.
Hiring lobbyists suggests Chick-fil-A knew it would be facing a backlash as it expanded into Canada’s biggest city, said David Kincaid, CEO of Level 5 Brand Advisors. With the company planning more restaurants in the GTA, it didn’t want anything to keep the first store from getting off the ground smoothly.
“It’s not unusual if they knew they’d be facing an issue that would need to be managed to give the pilot a fair shake,” said Kincaid.
Hundreds of angry protesters holding signs telling Chick-fil-A to “cluck off” surrounded the store at its grand opening last week. Counter-protesters, including right-wing activist and evangelical preacher Charles McVety, showed up to support the company.
That kind of uproar can’t be ignored, especially when entering a new market, said Kincaid. “I think they’re taking a cautious approach. There’s a reason they’re just opening one store at first. I don’t think they’re turning a deaf ear to the pushback.”
It’s no surprise that Chick-fil-A is expanding to Toronto, but how much of a foothold they gain here will depend on whether they’re willing to adapt to a cosmopolitan city like Toronto, said Darrell Schuurman, CEO of the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
“What sort of efforts are they making? Not just statements, but what steps are they taking? Canadians care about diversity and inclusion,” said Schuurman, adding that the LGBTQ community is a signficant consumer block on its own, but also has friends and allies who’d shy away from eating at or working for a company perceived as intolerant.
“It’s not just people who are directly part of the LGBTQ community. It’s their networks, their family, their friends. That’s a lot of people,” said Schuurman.
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Still, Schuurman understands Chick-fil-A’s decision to expand to Toronto.
“From a strictly business point of view, it’s not surprising that they’re coming to Canada. When you’re expanding and looking for new markets, right next door makes sense,” said Schuurman.