Frequent Fryer Plan: Devoting a Day to Chick-fil-A

Would you camp overnight in a Chick-fil-A parking lot just to get free food for a year? These people did.
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009

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."

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