(Adds details, quotes)
By David Beasley
ATLANTA Aug 1 (Reuters) - Thousands of people across the United States heeded the call of two former Republican U.S. presidential candidates to eat at Chick-fil-A on Wednesday to show support for the chain restaurant as it weathers criticism for its president's public opposition to gay marriage.
Business was so brisk at some of the privately owned chain's more than 1,600 locations that employees directed traffic in parking lots, lines remained long well past the lunch hour, and managers spoke of record sales.
"I don't believe in same-sex marriage. It's wrong," said Patricia Shelton, 53, after visiting a Chick-fil-A in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a state where voters approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage earlier this year.
"We've got to take a stand," Shelton said.
Chick-fil-A, known for its chicken sandwiches and waffle fries and for being closed on Sundays, came under fire after its president, Dan Cathy, told an online religious newspaper that he supports "the biblical definition of the family unit" and that supporters of gay marriage were "arrogant".
Conservative former presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum said those who agreed with Cathy should send a message about "traditional values" by eating a meal on what they dubbed "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day."
Gay marriage supporters have pushed for a boycott of the chain and are seeking to block new Chick-fil-A outlets from opening. The mayors of Chicago and Boston have spoken out against the company, and same-sex couples around the country plan a kiss-in at Chick-fil-A restaurants on Friday.
While some patrons said they visited the chain on Wednesday simply because they like the food, others at busier-than-usual locations from suburban Philadelphia to cities across the Southeast said they came to support Cathy's stance and his right to voice it.
"We're Bible-believing Christians," said Bethany Hill, 35, at a Chick-fil-A in Trevose, Pennsylvania. "We're thankful that he decided to stand up."
"You should have the right to say your opinion without being penalized," said Lillian Somers, 78, at a Chick-fil-A in Birmingham, Alabama. "I am tired of people trying to force their beliefs on me and people being blasted for Christian beliefs."
The general manager of New Hampshire's only Chick-fil-A franchise reacted to the controversy by becoming a sponsor of the state's gay pride festival slated for Aug. 11.
The restaurant in a Nashua shopping mall "has gay employees and serves gay customers with honor, dignity and respect," general manager Anthony Picolia said in a statement released by the organizers of New Hampshire Pride Fest.
"I would challenge people to come have a conversation with me before they make assumptions or boycott my restaurant," he said.
In Chick-fil-A's corporate hometown of Atlanta, 42-year-old government worker Hackwin Devoe said he "does not find Biblical support" for gay marriage but does not oppose it.
He said one of the things that makes the United States a great nation is that Americans respect one another for their opinions.
For him, the quality of Chick-fil-A's product outweighs its president's politics.
"As long as the service and quality of the food continues to be good, I'm fine with that," said Devoe. (Additional reporting by Jason McLure, Dave Warner and Verna Gates; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Paul Thomasch, Will Dunham and Andrew Hay)