ATLANTA — As the same-sex marriage debate rages, one person says he won't be weighing in on the subject anymore: Dan Cathy, CEO and president of Chick-fil-A.
Almost two years after he made headlines by throwing his support behind traditional marriage and later decried a pair of Supreme Court decisions that favored same-sex unions, Cathy hasn't changed his mind. But he said Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A has no place in the culture wars and regrets making the company a symbol in the marriage debate.
"Every leader goes through different phases of maturity, growth and development and it helps by (recognizing) the mistakes that you make," Cathy said. "And you learn from those mistakes. If not, you're just a fool. I'm thankful that I lived through it and I learned a lot from it."
Cathy talked about the events of the summer of 2012 in a wide-ranging interview that included his thoughts about the company's future and the path he wants to put it on as the newly named CEO. He got the title in November after his father, Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy, stepped aside at age 92.
Still, as Cathy starts the job, the company's link to the gay marriage debate lingers. And it still occupies a niche as the only major fast food chain that isn't open on Sunday, owing to the Christian, pro-family convictions of the elder Cathy -- something Dan Cathy says he won't change.
Cathy told an online publication in 2012 that he was "guilty as charged" in his religion-based opposition to gay marriage. Same-sex marriage supporters protested at Chick-fil-A locations; thousands who backed Cathy's stance -- or at least his right to state it -- packed stores, creating lines that snaked out the door.
The company tried to extricate itself from the controversy by repeatedly asserting it does not discriminate against customers or employees on the basis of sexual orientation.
"Probably the elements that were stressful for me most is from our internal staff and from operators and how this may be affecting them," he said. "The bottom line is we have a responsibility here to keep the whole of the organization in mind and it has to take precedence over the personal expression and opinion on social issues."
Many on both sides of the same-sex marriage issue still consider dining at Chick-fil-A a political statement. Others scrutinize the company's and Cathy's actions regarding same-sex marriage for evidence of its stance.
Progressive website Think Progress earlier this month reported that Chick-fil-A's foundations -- WinShape Foundation and its namesake Chick-fil-A Foundation -- "dramatically" cut donations to groups gay marriage supporters consider anti-gay. WinShape sharply decreased grants overall, and the only group the Chick-fil-A Foundation gave money to that is considered by the gay rights community to be anti-gay is the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which received $25,000.
Meanwhile, Pasadena City College in California recently opposed Chick-fil-A's plans for a location near campus because of concerns the chain contributes to "anti-gay" groups.
For Cathy, who is in a cutthroat business where no player can afford alienating market segments, the lingering identity is troubling.
"Consumers want to do business with brands that they can interface with, that they can relate with," Cathy said. "And it's probably very wise from our standpoint to make sure that we present our brand in a compelling way that the consumer can relate to."
For Cathy, there is lots to talk about other than gay marriage.
Chick-fil-A, like a lot of fast-food companies, is being forced by an increasingly better-educated consumer to review every aspect of its menu, from calorie counts to genetically modified ingredients to where it gets its chicken. Bowing to changing consumer tastes, it set a goal last month to serve chicken raised without antibiotics at all stores nationwide within five years.
And burger brands such as McDonald's are developing more chicken products to capture market share among Americans who see poultry as a healthier alternative.
The company is one of the most successful in the industry, with sales in 2012 of $4.6 billion. To maintain growth, Chick-fil-A wants to move beyond its Bible Belt base into Northeast and Midwest cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago.
But land is harder to come by in those areas, which means building some stores without the drive-throughs that account for about 60 percent of sales.
Success in those cities also will determine whether the company takes another stab at going international, Cathy said. Chick-fil-A has shied away from opening stores abroad since closing its locations in South Africa in 2001, but Cathy said he is interested in Europe and Asia in the future.
"If we can't get a dozen stores in Manhattan profitable, then we have no business going to London," Cathy said.
The company will have to be more innovative, Cathy said. He encourages corporate leaders to download an app a day on their smartphones to keep fresh on changing tastes. The company opened an 80,000-square-foot innovation center -- across the street from its metro Atlanta headquarters -- as a laboratory for new store design and collaboration with organizations like the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Cathy, 61, himself is a prolific user of social media, which has been a blessing and a curse for the self-professed evangelical. On Twitter, he has congratulated Chick-fil-A employees who pitched in to help those affected by January's "snowmaggedon" and he tweeted a recent picture of himself with former Vice President Dick Cheney.
But he also mired Chick-fil-A further in the same-sex marriage debate when he tweeted his disappointment last June over the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act and to decline to rule on a court decision that found California's Proposition 8 unconstitutional.
"Sad day for our nation; founding fathers would be ashamed of our gen. to abandon wisdom of the ages re: cornerstone of strong societies," he tweeted in a post that was quickly taken down.
Cathy said he decided to step back from the gay marriage debate after prayer and conversations with co-workers and friends, including Shane Windmeyer, a gay supporter of marriage equality who helped Cathy understand why marriage was important to the gay community.
But while he may not be tweeting his views again any time soon, Cathy made it clear, when asked, that his personal feelings on gay marriage haven't changed.
"I think the time of truths and principles are captured and codified in God's word and I'm just personally committed to that," he said. "I know others feel very different from that and I respect their opinion and I hope that they would be respectful of mine."
Asked his thoughts on legislation proposed in several states, including Georgia, that would allow people of faith to refuse service to some customers because of their religious beliefs -- laws that opponents say are designed to allow discrimination against gays -- Cathy demurred.
"I think that's a political debate that's going to rage on," he said. "And the wiser thing for us to do is to stay focused on customer service"