Local politics have no shortage of squeaky wheels, selfish busybodies, and neighbors concerned primarily with their own lot in life—and, specifically, with the property values of that lot. Few people go to public meetings simply to stand up for the public good, for the welfare of the city, for the civic spirit in the most general sense. And then there is John Holmes, a 26-year-old Charlotte, North Carolina, man who got himself fired from Chick-fil-A because he opposed a different local Chick-fil-A franchise’s pursuit of a zoning variance in order to build a drive-thru, breaking its neighborhood’s pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented zoning code. Holmes is pursuing a master’s in public administration, and he and his partner are expecting their first child. (I reached out to Chick-fil-A corporate for comment and will update if I hear back.)
On Friday, I gave John a call to discuss his principled stand, what he dislikes about drive-thrus, and how getting fired has restored his faith in humanity.
Henry Grabar: You got fired from Chick-fil-A for expressing your opinions about a zoning variance. How are you doing?
John Holmes: It’s been kind of up and down. Thankfully it wasn’t my only source of income—I do get a little bit of money from the GI Bill, and then I also get a little bit of money from being a graduate assistant here at UNC Charlotte. Unfortunately, it was a pretty significant chunk of that.
You were an operations manager at a Chick-fil-A in Charlotte. How long had you been doing that?
I was at that Chick-fil-A from June of 2020 to basically last week. I started off as a team member and worked my way up to being a senior operations director at the restaurant.
A couple weeks ago you heard about this other Chick-fil-A seeking a zoning variance for a drive-thru. What was your reaction?
One day I saw in my timeline that the City Council voted 8 to 2 on this matter—8 in favor of this Chick-fil-A being rezoned, only 2 against it. And I got really mad.
The city had said originally that that was supposed to be an area that was pedestrian-friendly. But instead the city went back on that, with little to no resistance whatsoever. Initially, I emailed my district representative Matt Newton, and I didn’t get any response. After that I was like, well, let me just go on social media and I’ll talk about it.
I was pretty angry about this whole thing. Both disappointed in the city and then also really disappointed in Chick-fil-A. Their big thing that they try and state is “Hey, stewardship is one of our core values. We always want to be a good steward of what we’re given, including the land that we’re on and our neighbors. So we’re going to do everything we can to make it as pleasant for them.” When I saw that they essentially requested to go against the city’s original vision, the immediate thing I saw was this isn’t really good stewardship. If anything, this is being a bit of a bully and forcing your neighbors into what you desire, even though it’s going be hurtful for them in the future.
Are you a pedestrian or a cyclist yourself in Charlotte?
Yes, I am. I always joke that my vehicle gets smaller and smaller. When I moved to Charlotte in 2017, I had a Suzuki Forenza, just a small four-door sedan. In 2018, I sold that for a Smart car. And then I realized, like, oh, I’m not really using this all that much. So I got a motorcycle instead, and I commuted all throughout the year on that. And then in 2020 I started cycling and walking everywhere. And I started finding, like, oh, this solves like a lot of the problems that I had. I got pretty hefty in those two years of just motorcycling all over the place.
What is it about a drive-thru that suggests hostility or makes the environment less pleasant?
Oh, goodness. There is a lot! The biggest thing is that you have to compete with the traffic that comes in and out of the drive-thrus. You’ll have lots of drivers trying to either run you off the sidewalk, or if you’re in the road, they’ll almost run into you. The first time I got hit in Charlotte, it was a gentleman coming out of an Arby’s drive-thru. Second time I got hit in Charlotte was a gentleman coming out of a Cook Out drive-thru. There’s like this huge rush to get out and people just kind of ignore that people walk here.
I guess evidently at some point the city of Charlotte recognized this, because in the area you’re talking about, Chick-fil-A along with a Fifth Third Bank were seeking variances because the city had decided this was going to be a place where they weren’t going to allow drive-thrus.
Exactly. We had this really wonderful, inspiring vision of where the city’s going. This is what we’re going to be trying to do. It’s something where a lot of people acknowledged—that this needs to change. We voted for it to change. We wanted this to change, but then not enough people are following the day-to-day stuff on the City Council.
So you wrote something on Facebook.
Again, I was pretty mad, so I wrote, “Fuck Chick-fil-A, fuck Charlotte City Council, and fuck, and I can’t stress this enough, them cars. This is a step in the wrong direction, in so many ways. And I’m genuinely disappointed that our city would decide to cede its vision of a pedestrian-friendly city to, of all things, a deep-fried chicken restaurant. I’ll be writing a very angry letter to my representative.”
What did you hear when you went in the next day?
The store owner and one of the assistant managers came over to me and they’re like, “Hey, we’ve got to talk to you. What’s this?” And they showed me a printout of the Facebook post that I had made. And I was like, “Oh, that—that’s the Chick-fil-A by the light rail. That’s not yours.” [Laughs.] And he is like, “Well, I can’t have you critiquing the brand like this. I need your key and I’m going to need you to leave.”
You were like, “I said ‘Fuck Chick-fil-A,’ but I didn’t mean this Chick-fil-A!”
[Laughs.] Well, yeah! Chick-fil-A’s big thing is each store is operated by one person. It’s not like McDonald or Burger King. They really try and stress this is your thing. So I was like, “This isn’t your decision. This is an entirely different part of the corporation.”
If you could do it all over again, would you have taken a stand on it, or would you have maybe decided that, you know, not to …
No, I definitely would’ve still taken the stand. We have a lot of problems in Charlotte. We’re the fourth-deadliest metro for pedestrians in the United States. When you live in the part of Charlotte I do, where it’s not this booming metropolis, it’s a lot of highway roads cutting through neighborhoods and people getting hit and killed.
I remember there was one moment when I was just sitting in my apartment and I got a notification that there was like a hit-and-run of a 2-year-old child that was killed almost immediately. On the sidewalk! That’s the reality that happens a lot in the city and I really want that to stop. I want that to be fixed.
It’s been stressful trying to find jobs, balancing school, and getting ready for our kid coming in. But at the same time, if I don’t speak up about it, who’s going to? No one is speaking up for these poorer parts of the city.
I read in the Charlotte Observer that you’re expecting?
Yes, my partner’s six months pregnant now.
Congratulations! Have you experienced any positive reinforcement since the Charlotte Observer article came out?
Oh, my gosh, yeah. I’ve had a pretty large amount of people reach out to me. I love the city. And I predominantly love the people in it. I have had so many people send me private messages or find my email through the university or reach out to me at my LinkedIn. And they’re like, “I’m like really happy that someone is actually standing up and putting some skin in the game. Like, thank you so much for doing this. Can I give you anything?”
And these people don’t know me. The only thing they know about me is that I worked at a restaurant and I got fired for a political belief. This has just been such a huge moment of restorative faith in humanity. These people are my neighbors and they are really doing their best to try and make sure that they’re there for me in any capacity. I don’t want to ask for anything just yet, because I think things will be OK and I’d rather those resources go to people who really need them. We’ll be struggling for a bit. Maybe I can’t afford to go to the movies. But there’s someone out there that can’t afford to pay rent.