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Posted at 11:13 AM ET, 07/29/2010

Chicken fans line up for free food, friends

By Mike McPhate

They traveled for hours from as many as 10 states, they pitched tents at the edge of a strip mall parking lot, and they waited in sweltering heat for more than 24 hours -- for chicken.

Never underestimate the devotion of a Chick-fil-A fan.

More than 200 fans of the fast-food chain began gathering Tuesday afternoon in Silver Spring where a new franchise was offering 52 free meal coupons to each of the first 100 people in line at its Thursday opening.

For Chick-fil-A lovers, the "First 100" promotions, which began in 2003 and have since been held at more than 430 franchise openings, are about so much more than the promise of free food.

Lasting friendships are forged in the parking lots, many say. Each event is a chance to see old pals, to share stories over card games, and of course, to eat chicken together. When it’s over there are hugs and heartfelt farewells till the next event.

Libby Knupp, 69, showed up at the 12289 Tech Road franchise at 3 p.m. Tuesday. She likened the bond with other chicken enthusiasts to “a family get-together without the feuding.”

Knupp, a cheerful retiree, and her husband Jake, 72, have been to 56 openings, she said. The couple visits the restaurant every day back home in Bunker Hill, W.Va., if only to get a soda, she said. On Saturdays, they buy meals and save them for Sunday when the store closes, a practice that pleases many of restaurant’s Christian patrons.

“It’s gone way past the coupons,” she said.

At about 6 a.m., an employee dressed in a head-to-toe cow costume presides over the ribbon cutting. Cheers erupt, and the first 100 file into the store to collect their coupons. They clap and give the cow high fives. One woman thrusts her fists in the air.

“It’s just an incredible atmosphere and sort of community to come and be a part of,” said David Weinhold, a 22-year-old student at Gettysburg Seminary.

Cindi Pickett, a Chick-fil-A spokeswoman, said the Atlanta-based company was as surprised as anyone at the dedication of its fan base when the promotion was launched more than six years ago in Goodyear, Ariz.

“To be honest, Chick-fil-A, in the very beginning of this, didn’t realize the draw and the power of their brand,” she said.

The festive atmosphere of the parking lot has since become the main draw, she said. The day before the Silver Spring opening was filled with events: a water balloon toss, a deejay-led dance-off and a scavenger hunt. People played board games and kids played in blow-up swimming pools.

“It’s almost as if the year’s supply [of coupons] is just the cherry on the sundae,” Pickett said.

Shortly after the ribbon-cutting, Knupp has collected her 52 coupons. She exits the restaurant, exuberant.

“Well, we made it!” she says with a laugh. “What a great feeling! It’s like hitting the lottery.”

-- Mike McPhate

By Mike McPhate  | July 29, 2010; 11:13 AM ET
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People who don't have lives.

Or, a sign that an economic apocalypse is on us.

Oh, yeah -- the joints are run by conservative Bible-thumping wingnuts who won't open on Sundays.

Posted by: bs2004 | July 29, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

I'm looking for a Popeye's coupon.

Posted by: blasmaic | July 29, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

I like Iron Maiden. Maiden Rules!

Posted by: 123cartoon | July 29, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Chick-fil-A ain't all that. I like KFC much better. And KFC IS open on Sundays.

Posted by: blackforestcherry | July 29, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Oh, yeah -- the joints are run by conservative Bible-thumping wingnuts who won't open on Sundays.

Posted by: bs2004 | July 29, 2010 11:46 AM
Yes, great reason to hate on Chik-Fil-A, and I'm sure you've personally met every one of these folks who 'run these joints.' While we're at it, let's hate on jewelry stores and delicatessans, too, because they're run by 'torah-thumping' orthodox wingnuts, or maybe we can hate on kebab joints, because they're run by 'koran-thumping' shi'ite wingnuts. In all seriousness, since when did it become okay to be completely bigotted towards christians? Oh, but I'm sure you don't think you're a prejudiced bigot at all, because you only hate on 'certain' kinds of folks.

P.S.- Chik-Fil-A is money. If it was legal to do so anywhere outside of San Francisco, I'd marry it.

Posted by: pswift00 | July 29, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

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