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Chick-fil-A opens protest-free in Santa Rosa


A controversial Chick-fil-A restaurant opened in Santa Rosa on Thursday without promised protests from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

Gary Carnivele, editor of gaysonoma.com, had vowed to organize a boycott against the fast-food chain after the company's president, Dan Cathy, said he opposed same-sex marriage and believed in "the biblical definition of the family unit."

Carnivele said there would likely be demonstrations against the Mendocino Avenue restaurant down the road, but not on opening day because members feared for their safety.

"There are still a lot of homophobic people around, and there are people who are probably just going to go to Chick-fil-A to make a point of saying that they not only support the restaurant, but they're not in favor of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples," Carnivele said.

Jason Sutton, who owns the Santa Rosa franchise, said the community response to the new restaurant so far has been great.

"I believe in treating everyone the same. I believe in equality," said Sutton, a retired U.S. Army officer who just moved to Sonoma County with his family from Kansas City. "I just want anyone who feels like Chick-fil-A has a stance like that to give us a chance."

As noon approached, the parking lot filled with cars going through the drive-through as a team of Chick-fil-A employees directed traffic. Outdoor tables quickly filled with happy diners, and Sutton greeted guests with handshakes. Families and young people alike chomped on the waffle fries and spicy sandwiches.

"We're so happy that a Chick-fil-A opened in Santa Rosa. I've been waiting for it to open," said David Koven, 25, an ophthalmology technician who lives in Santa Rosa. "We don't always agree with their politics, but they make great chicken sandwiches."

Toddy Cantrell, a stay-at-home mother who home-schools her children in Santa Rosa, enjoyed the restaurant with two of her sons Thursday afternoon.

"We've been looking forward to it for a long time," Cantrell said. "I really like the faith premise that the company is founded on."

Cantrell, a member of Santa Rosa Bible Church, said Cathy's stance on same-sex marriage has nothing to do with the company's ability to welcome all people into its restaurants.

"I am thankful that we live in a country where he is free to express his opinion publicly," Cantrell said.

People began lining up before 6 a.m. Wednesday for a chance to win a year's worth of free food. The first 100 adults in line were each given coupons that could be redeemed for 52 free meals — a total of nearly $30,000 in food.

To raise awareness about the restaurant, Sutton said he partnered with businesses like Sports Authority and Kmart to distribute free sandwiches before the opening. The restaurant also donated 185 sandwiches to the football and soccer teams at Santa Rosa Junior College, he said.

"We really want to create community awareness in who we are," Sutton said. "We want to help grow the community and make a difference in people's lives."

Chick-fil-A opened its first restaurant in the area in 1982 at Santa Rosa Plaza. The mall location closed in 1995.

Founded in 1967, the Atlanta company operates more than 1,700 restaurants in 38 states and Washington, D.C. It reported a record $4.6 billion in sales last year.

Some neighboring business owners are pleased at the additional traffic the chicken destination may bring. The restaurant, which employes 65 people, is built on the site of a Burger King restaurant that had been shuttered since 2007.

"I think it's good, because it's was a derelict building for years," said Dave Carlson, owner of Music Biz on Mendocino Avenue. "I think it will bring new people to the area. It's a great new building ... I think it's good for the economy."

The restaurant had served roughly 2,000 customers by 2 p.m., said Cindy Chapman, spokeswoman for Chick-fil-A.

"I just want everyone to know that I'm an independent operator, and I want to treat everyone with genuine hospitality and service," Sutton said. "Everyone who comes in will be treated with honor, dignity and respect."

The new restaurant, located at 1452 Mendocino Ave., is open from 6:30 a.m. until 10 p.m.