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Originally published March 13, 2009, in The Washington Post

It's like summer camp without nature. It's like a block party, but you can't go home. Or a cruise ship, but you don't move. Or a wedding reception, minus the alcohol. Or a church group lock-in, with the fasting replaced by a steady gorge of fast food.

It is, on paper, a nightmare.

Imagine driving by the new Chick-fil-A, which is plopped in a vast landscape of big-box stores in Gainesville. It's dinnertime Wednesday and the restaurant is surrounded by small camping tents. In the drive-through lane, people dance. They hula hoop. They toss beanbags and play basketball. A DJ blasts "We Are Family." Everyone's hopped up on sweet tea. Everyone's popping chicken nuggets.

There are 100 people, and they've been up since before 6 a.m. They are here to spend 24 hours on Chick-fil-A property, to be one of the "First 100" customers in the new restaurant when it officially opens the next day.

The incentive? A "year of free food." Which actually means 52 coupons for a free combo meal. But still, that's a saving of several hundred dollars. Nothing to sneeze at, in this economy.

By 8 a.m. they had been assigned their numbers, 1 to 100. Now all they had to do was wait out the day. Chick-fil-A caters to them throughout the 24 hours: food, entertainment, encouragement -- anything to make their stay on asphalt more pleasant. The trick is they can't go anywhere, or else they'll miss the roll calls, in which case they'll be disqualified.

Spend 24 hours at a Chick-fil-A opening and witness the teeny ironies of human economics: how people skip work and burn gasoline traveling hundreds of miles for coupons, how a company thrives in a marketplace meltdown by treating its customers like royalty and promoting a genius PR stunt, how the First 100 escape the world by forming a barricade of tents around a beacon of your-way-right-away capitalism.

It's not so much a nightmare as it is a fever dream.

 

Earlier in the afternoon, a pair of cute 30-something moms in Ray-Bans power-walk around the restaurant to pass the time. The kids are at home in Winchester with the dads.

Why are they here, at a Chick-fil-A, instead of, say, a spa?

Rachel Charles: "You get all your meals for sticking around, and then you get 52 more. It's such an obscure change of pace."

Erika Francis: "It's an entire day when nobody needs anything. No one needs their diaper changed. No one needs dinner made. They make dinner for you."

A couple of laps elapse.

Francis: "We are the coupon queens."

Charles: "It's the hobby that pays you back. We're living in frugal times. We did an opening in Ransom, West Virginia, last week and it was like a minus-9 wind chill and I was whipped at the end of it, but then I drove through the drive-through and got food for my whole family for free."

Also camping in the parking lot:

-- An ex-Marine who's collected more than 1,000 Chick-fil-A coupons to give to his grandkids and to random single mothers.

-- Classmates from Liberty University (spring break, woo) who munch on chicken as they sit in folding chairs reading the spiritual guidebook "The Life You've Always Wanted."

-- Married real estate agents from West Virginia, sitting under a blue tarp, who came because they wanted a break from "working and not getting paid."

-- Three generations of a family wrapped in blankets, hair wind-swept, looking like they stepped out of a 21st-century sequel to "The Grapes of Wrath" that takes place on a prairie of plazas.

 

Then there's the vegetarian.

Mechanicsville resident Jack Boyd, 26, figures his coupon trove from 15 grand openings has allowed him to eat 600 free chicken-sandwich meals. That's more than $3,000 in savings. This streak of gluttony might have played a part in his renunciation of meat in January. Yet here he is at poultry central.

"I'm starving," he confides inside his tent, having refused all chicken for the day. "I'm dying, man. All I've had to eat today is two bags of chips and a brownie."

He's here for the "adventure." To break the monotony of life. That's why most of the 100 are here. That, and they're obsessed with Chick-fil-A: the food, the tirelessly cordial service, the Christian values (every location is closed on Sundays, and the corporate purpose is "to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us" and "to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A").

The company is celebrating 16 consecutive years of double-digit sales growth. Seven new stores will open in the D.C. area by summer. The Gainesville location is the second of three stores to open in a four-mile radius of stalling retail parks and subdivisions riven by foreclosure in Prince William County. The real world may have already breached the tent barricade.

"I've seen new moms coming with 6-week-old babies in bad weather," says "Mama Sue" James, who works in marketing for Chick-fil-A and has stayed overnight at many First 100 events. "And you know they wouldn't be doing it if they didn't need it."

Inside the restaurant, a quotation from Chick-fil-A's revered patriarch-philanthropist-founder, S. Truett Cathy, hangs in shiny silver letters over the new bathrooms:

Food is essential to life;

therefore, make it good.

 

The day drags. A teenager on a cellphone about 1:30 p.m.:

"Hey Megan? Are you on spring break?"

Pause.

"Yeah, I'm in Gainesville. At a Chick-fil-A opening."

Pause.

"Free chicken for a year. It's real fun. You should come over. We'll be here till tomorrow morning."

Pause.

"Yeah, at a Chick-fil-A."

A teal SUV slows outside of the parking lot about 2 p.m. The driver, eyes narrowed, rolls down her window. She wonders what's going on, with all these people in tents. Someone informs her. "Reminds me of Katrina," she responds, and drives off.

 

Six miles south, about 3 p.m., at the next-to-open Bristow location, franchise operator Michael Lovitt sits in a trailer surrounded by big-box stores, interviewing a woman in a pink blouse who was just laid off from Wal-Mart.

"What is absolutely the most important thing to you right now?" Lovitt asks grandly, after gauging how the interviewee responds to an explanation of the company's Christian values.

"Getting a job," she says. Only a sliver of time passes before she adds: "And giving back to the community."

The woman leaves the interview with four coupons. Hundreds of people have applied for jobs at his location, Lovitt says. The applicant pool is sterling. His assistant manager has two master's degrees. His night shift manager was in the banking industry for 22 years.

 

About 5:30 p.m., second-generation Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy pilots his Cessna into the Manassas airport and arrives at the Gainesville event to give his blessing. His son, Andrew, fields questions from the staff.

"Does Chick-fil-A define you, or do you define Chick-fil-A?" an earnest, red-shirted employee asks.

The room chuckles. "Business is a very temporary thing," Andrew says. "It could all be gone tomorrow. So you can't build success -- or who you are as a person -- on that."

As the staff prays, music blares outside. The DJ has arrived and the event kicks into the bizarro phase. Inevitably, the DJ plays "The Chicken Dance" and dials up the tempo.

"Faster chicken!" he bellows, as the First 100 flap their elbows. "Faster! Faster chicken! Faster chicken!"

A chicken dinner is served. The Cathys greet their customers and Dan recites a Bible verse about being an instrument of God. The staff is relentlessly generous. Everything is yes ma'am and my pleasure and let me get you a refill. Much of the First 100 loves it. It's why they keep coming back. The goodness is contagious. They feel a part of something. They feel taken care of and appreciated.

Having spread some positivity, the Cathys jet to North Carolina, where they're camping out at another opening.

 

By midnight, the party's over. Everyone's in their tents. The temperature returns to the 30s. Wind whips the tents. Loud jazzy Muzak, a maddening lullaby, drifts over from speakers in the nearby plaza. Floodlights make it seem like high noon. Few sleep well.

The First 100 rise about 6 a.m. and line up again outside the restaurant, shivering, waiting for the coupons.

Worth it?

For a year's worth of food and a bit of wholesome fun? Heck yes, most say.

There is at least one small voice of dissent in the line. Sydney Hunter, 18, and her friends spent most of the previous evening playing cards in their cluster of tents, away from the celebrating.

Worth it?

"No," Hunter says from under a hoodie, her chin tucked in against the cold. "No."

The doors open officially. Inside, the staff cheers and bangs pots and pans. The First 100 receive a high-five and a white box with a red ribbon. Inside are the coupons. Everyone gets savings. Some head straight for the counter. Some head straight for their cars. ⬛