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Documents detail turmoil over San Antonio decision to bar Chick-fil-A from airport

Chick-fil-A debuts gluten-free buns at its restaurants, like this one in the Richmond, Virginia, metro area. (Photo: KTSA/Dennis Foley)

SAN ANTONIO (KTSA News) — Documents relating to the San Antonio city council’s decision to cut and ban Chick-fil-A from an airport concessions agreement earlier this year have been released, highlighting the turmoil the council faced from the public on all sides of how the agreement came together.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office had requested documents relating to the decision to block the chicken chain back in March.

The city released those documents to the San Antonio Express-News.

The documents included the discussions about why the city staff handling the concessionaire contract bidding and negotiations were considering Atlanta-based Paradies Lagardère as their finalist.

The original proposal included Panda Express, but Chick-fil-A was included instead because it was seen as being more popular and would have netted the city more money in revenue.  The airport was prepared to announce Chick-fil-A as the headline attraction of new concessionaires.

The city council disagreed.

“Would it have helped if I went up there and told them I’m a happy Chick-fil-A customer? Haha…kidding,” San Antonio air service administrator Brian Pratte wrote in an email hours after the vote.

“Probably not,” aviation director Russ Handy responded. “I suspect many on the desk are customers!!”

Other airport officials were concerned about the legal actions Chick-fil-A may take.

Meanwhile, the public was chiming in on full blast as news of the vote made its way across the state and country.

Over 1,000 emails and messages had been sent to the city council with their thoughts on its actions.  Only 12 were supportive.

None of those supportive messages came from the San Antonio LGBTQ community, the group specifically cited as the motivation for the decision to ban the chain.  The only support came from outside of the city.

San Antonio mayor Ron Nirenberg responded to some displeased writers that there were plenty of other Chick-fil-A restaurants in the city and many — including him — would enjoy.  He also cited the desire to have a restaurant open every day in the airport.

About a week after the vote, San Antonio mayor Ron Nirenberg told his now-former chief of staff Trey Jacobson the council would not be reconsidering its vote, despite growing chatter and a push to make it so.

“This is a nonissue,” Nirenberg texted.  “I repeat, this is a NONISSUE.”

He followed up by telling Jacobson to let city manager Erik Walsh and city attorney Andy Segovia know “We are holding firm.  Nothing wrong was done.”

The rest of the council was not as firm.

Staffers for council members Manny Pelaez and Ana Sandoval tried defending their votes with talking points, but both eventually admitted they voted in haste.

Greg Brockhouse, John Courage, and Clayton Perry told people emailing and messaging them they were on their side.  All of them voted against taking Chick-fil-A out of the contract.

Perry’s chief of staff worried to the councilman about the impact the vote would have on transportation funding.

“Hopefully, the release of the Mueller report will refocus,” Nicole Fowles, senior special project manager in the city aviation department, the Express-News reported she said in a March 24 email.

The mayor clearly wanted to move on, but the city and the state did not.

The council’s vote to block Chick-fil-A also imploded the airport’s ability to find a backup outlet to take the chicken chain’s spot.

Nearly a month after the vote, the Mukesh Patel, the city’s chief aviation administration officer, wrote to Hardy the airport could just revert back to Panda Express to help get the heat off the mayor.

Hardy said it wouldn’t help.

It is still not known who would replace Chick-fil-A in the proposal.

KFC jumped on the opportunity days after the city council’s vote in a Facebook message to airport officials, inquiring about Kentucky Fried Chicken being in the airport.

Whataburger was a popular option, since its headquarters in just a couple miles south of the airport on U.S. 281.

“Personally, I would love to see a restaurant like Whataburger there, which is one of the best and also headquartered in San Antonio,” Nirenberg reportedly wrote in response to several people angry over the Chick-fil-A vote.

It likely would have been wiser to consider the San Antonio chain before the Chick-fil-A vote instead of after.

The city reached out to the company five days after the vote saying Paradies would reach out to discuss options.

Conversations started over two weeks after the vote, but died when a group of San Antonio area residents sued the city and Paradies, citing the newly passed “Save Chick-fil-A” law.  They sought to force the city to open a Chick-fil-A.

Brockhouse publicly tried to smooth things over with the chicken chain.  The newly released documents detailed by the Express-News said staffers for Nirenberg and Sandoval also tried reaching out to Chick-fil-A executives to smooth things over.  The company did not respond.

Even other business owners were not happy with the city and how it handled the airport concessions deal.

The Paradies proposal contained a large number of restaurants owned by San Antonio chef Andrew Weissman.  Other proposals included restaurants from other notable San Antonio chefs and icons.

Helen Velesiotis, who owns Taco Taco Cafe on Hildebrand Avenue and has been featured on the Food Network, complained to Pelaez about trying to do business with the airport for years and found the process to apply bewildering.

The councilman responded that she was his favorite Greek San Antonian and said she would be perfect for the airport.

The Chick-fil-A Alamodome

About a year before the airport concessions debacle, there was a proposal by area Chick-fil-A franchisees to buy the naming rights to the Alamodome.

Those details were also learned in the newly-released documents.

The City of San Antonio was looking to see if any companies had an interest in buying the naming rights to the stadium.

The proposal included photos of what a ‘Chick-fil-A Alamodome’ would have looked like had it happened.  Part of the proposal included putting Chick-fil-A cows on the northwest corner of the stadium telling drivers on Interstate 37 to eat more chicken — er, ‘eat more chikin’.

The plan would have also put a sit-down restaurant in the Alamodome.

It’s not clear how likely this proposal would have become a reality — whether for public relations concerns or if the franchisees were going to be able to afford the sponsorship.

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