Preferences, not flap over gay marriage, spur vendor change
URBANA — The Chick-fil-A Express restaurant at the Illini Union food court will close Friday, but University of Illinois officials say the decision has more to do with student food preferences than the fast-food chain's views on gay marriage.
Megan Laz, spokeswoman for the Illini Union, said Chick-fil-A's contract expires Friday, and the Union decided to pursue a different restaurant vendor based on student input.
In a survey this past semester, the Union asked students for their top five preferences for the food court in a variety of categories, including fast-food restaurants. Chick-fil-A was not among the top five in that category, finishing eighth on a list of about 15 candidates, said Scott McCartney, the Union's senior associate director of retail operations.
The top five were Five Guys, Wendy's, McDonald's, Steak 'n Shake and Culver's. Portillo's in Chicago was initially in the top five, but McCartney said he knew up front the restaurant wasn't interested. After getting approval from the Illini Union Board, a student advisory group, the Union contacted all five restaurants and eventually chose one, though the contract isn't finalized, he said.
"It's a pretty straightforward matter," Laz said. "It's unrelated to the controversy. It's a business decision."
McCartney said if Chick-fil-A had finished in the top five, he would have proposed that the contract be renewed, but that would have been up to the Illini Union Board. The student board members had discussed the gay-marriage controversy last summer, after Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy took a public stance against gay marriage. His comments prompted boycotts by gay-rights groups and efforts by city officials in Boston and Chicago to block the chain from opening restaurants in those cities.
In response, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, declared a "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day," urging supporters to eat at the restaurant. Opponents of Cathy's stance then planned "Kiss Mor Chiks" day, asking people of the same sex to show up at Chick-fil-A locations and kiss each other.
Locally, scores of customers lined up at the Illini Union's Chick-fil-A Express to support the chain, citing concerns about free speech and gay marriage. The effort was promoted by Mark Burns, president and general manager of Fisher-based "Great News Radio" stations.
McCartney said that when he took the job last summer, he decided to start surveying students every year for their restaurant preferences and try to "get a name they liked," rather than simply putting out a request for proposals and seeing which restaurants responded. Chick-fil-A was the first contract that came up for renewal; as other contracts expire, he plans to follow the same process.
The Illini Union Board approved the survey, which included 43 open-ended questions about student food and drink preferences, as well as others asking students to rank items from 1 to 5, such as cleanliness.
McCartney said the controversy had "no impact" on the survey, though he did receive some comments critical of Cathy's stance on gay marriage in the responses.
The food court has 11 vendors. Chick-fil-A had operated at the Union for four and a half years and had done fairly good business, he said, though not as good as some previous vendors. Sales had grown each year as students became more familiar with the chain, he said.
The contract was with MSE Branded Foods, a franchisee near Atlanta, which will continue to operate the Jamba Juice stand in the food court.
MSE Vice President Ed Jones declined to comment on the Illini Union's motivations Tuesday. The UI informed the company Friday that the contract wasn't being renewed.
"We've had a good relationship with the university, and we will continue to have a relationship with them," Jones said. "We've had a good relationship with Chick-fil-A and we'll continue that also, in other places."