Camping out for chicken

Giveaway: Cold and rain fail to deter people who lined up the day before a Chick-fil-A restaurant opened to win a year's worth of free meals.

April 02, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Some people will camp out all night to land tickets to a big sporting event or a hot concert.

Ronald Mann, 18, did it for chicken sandwiches.

The senior at Howard High School in Ellicott City sat in a lawn chair in the pouring rain for seven hours to win a year's supply of Chick-fil-A chicken meals. The Atlanta-based fast-food chain was giving away coupons for the free food to the first 100 people in line when its latest restaurant opened at 6:30 a.m. yesterday at Dobbin Center shopping plaza in Columbia.

"I'm cranky," Mann said about 5 a.m. yesterday. "This is like a bad dream. But once you get this far you can't just quit."

When Chick-fil-A launched the free-food-for-a-year promotion for its new restaurants last fall, it never expected this: people camping out overnight to win.

The 1,130-store chain, which recently began opening restaurants in the Baltimore area, is known for its offbeat promotions and its policy against opening on Sundays in line with the founder's religious devotion.

Looking to build consumer awareness but lacking the advertising budget of larger fast-food companies, the company is best recognized for its "Save a Cow, Eat More Chicken" campaign that pokes fun at the hamburger competition. (The company suspended a humorous "superhero cow" campaign this year, fearful it would be misinterpreted as concerns rose about mad cow disease.)

Chick-fil-A's coupon giveaways began in October to build excitement for a new location in Arizona. The company offered the first 100 customers a book of 52 coupons, redeemable for a free "combo meal" every week of the year at any Chick-fil-A in the country. The promotion cost $26,000, a relative pittance in food marketing.

The response was so good it baffled company officials. The first customer in Phoenix showed up at 3 p.m. the day before the restaurant opened. As the line grew, the staff scrambled to make coffee and offer water and snacks to the crowd. The same promotion at other new outlets was met with similar irrational exuberance. The company had to forbid people from showing up more than 24 hours in advance.

"We're always amazed at the people who will stand in the cold and the rain, but we're very thankful and very grateful," said Cliff Robinson, senior director of operations.

After about 20 openings since October, the staff still marvels at the reception. People waited in 3 inches of snow for the coupon promotion in Rogers, Ark., and braved temperatures in the teens in Aurora, Colo. When a Chick-fil-A opened on Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie in January, the company pitched a tent and brought in space heaters to comfort the shivering crowd.

"There are raving fans that almost have a cult-like following with Chick-fil-A," said President Dan T. Cathy, whose father opened the first Chick-fil-A in Atlanta's Greenbriar Mall in 1967. "There's some kind of special connection these fans have emotionally for our brand."

"They advertise very little," said Ken Bernhardt, chairman of the marketing department in the business college at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "The key for Chick-fil-A is to get somebody to try it. Once they see what the experience is like, hopefully they'll come back."

In Columbia, Mike Hennessie and his girlfriend, Jessica O'Neal, were first in line at the new Chick-fil-A at 4 p.m. Wednesday. The couple, both of Columbia, pitched a tent and canopy and offered shelter to others who came less prepared.

Hennessie said he came because "it's something to do," and the food "is a lot better than a fast-food burger." O'Neal said she's on a budget and could use the free meals.

"I'm a starving college student," said O'Neal, who is studying communications and criminology at the University of Maryland, College Park.

By 3:15 a.m. yesterday, 100 people had lined up and more were coming. People pitched tents in the drive-through and barbecued on portable grills. A man played the guitar while others sang. A woman was dropped off wearing her bathrobe and flannel pajamas. By 5 a.m., in a driving rain, the shopping center parking lot was deserted except for the cars packed outside Chick-fil-A.

A passer-by might have thought someone was giving away $1 million.

How surprised they would have been to learn it was for chicken.

"It's like Woodstock," said Allison Gardner, 18, huddled in a hooded jacket, her jeans soaked to her calves. At one point during her wait, lawn sprinklers came on.

Leeann Niccolini, 34, made the event a family trip with two of her kids. It was the first time any of them had gone camping. Her husband stayed at home with their baby.

Daughter Katie, 8, broke the zipper to the tent shortly after they arrived and it leaked the whole night. But Niccolini said the experience is something her kids will remember for a long time.

"In retrospect, it will be worth it," the stay-at-home mother from Columbia said about 6:30 a.m. "Right now, I'm really tired."

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