It was part Black Friday, part Woodstock. Modern America on a weeknight, squatting over a cement slab across the street from a mall -- all for the love of fast food.
But oh how they love those sandwiches.
As most of the tired, smelly, smiling campers stumbled off to their tents and sleeping bags not long after midnight, Tim Glass, 20, and Eric Lemoine, 24, were standing near the ropes marking off the designated camping area. Lemoine, a cook at the bowling alley a few hundred feet away, was wearing an orange T-shirt, gray shorts, and tennis shoes. Glass was wearing a white T-shirt, jeans, and no shoes. Both men, Pompano residents, arrived before 4 a.m. the previous night, and both were among the 100 selected to receive the free meals. They said they'd had about two hours of broken sleep, roasting under the South Florida sun.
"This is our first time at one of these," Lemoine told me. "It's been fun. So worth it."
"Definitely worth it," Glass agreed. "I'm not sure I'd camp for more than a day, but the time out here has been a lot of fun. Insane but fun."
Several of the college-aged people here said they would surely go through their 52 free meal coupons in far fewer than 365 days, and they say the taste of the Chick-Fil-A fried chicken is the primary reason. "It's so moist and delicious," said Terri Stanier, 22, from Miami. "It's... it's... it's Chick-Fil-A. There's no other way to describe it."
Lemoine tried: "It's peppery but sweet, with a taste of country."
Lemoine and Glass brought a TV, an X-Box, an extension cord, a tent, and some snacks. When the TV stopped working earlier in the day, Lemoine's mother brought them another one.
"Nobody's allowed to leave," Lemoine said. "If you cross this line, you're disqualified." He pointed to the bouncing ball in the four-square game. "If that ball bounces away, they can't go get it."
The regulars already knew the rules. Many of the people here traveled from as far away as California and Pennsylvania. One man drove from Canada -- just for this opening. He's been to 27 before this. "It's a lifestyle," he said. "There's a Chick-Fil-A community. We all know each other from openings."
While they camped, the Chick-Fil-A enthusiasts were treated to more free sandwiches, along with unlimited quantities of tea, lemonade, and water, as well access to the store restrooms.
At 6 a.m. Wednesday, around 175 hungry people were lined up outside the restaurant -- more than 24 hours before it was scheduled to open. Store employees held a raffle to pick the lucky 100. Then they drew ten more numbers as alternates in case any of the original 100 free-food winners were unable to abide by the rules, which include no alcohol, no drugs, and no swearing. It also meant that when the store opened, up to ten people will have waited the entire time and not get the free meals.
When Alan Kedrierski learned that he would be disqualified from the free meals (he works at another Chick-Fil-A location, in Palm Beach County), he said he felt like kidnapping, torturing, and murdering the person who ratted him out. "Not really, though," he said. "That's just a combination of creativity and hate coming out." Kedrierski, who was wearing a Florida Gators T-shirt, Philadelphia Eagles shorts, Philadelphia Eagles socks, and flip-flops, decided he would stay and hang out with his friends even though he wouldn't be receiving the coupons. As an employee, he eats for free.
One of the women he was playing washers with in the drive-through lane was much more interested in the social aspects of the camp-out. Nineteen-year-old Coco Beene (yes, that's her real name) says she's a vegetarian. "Well, until today."
"She ate one of the chicken sandwiches they gave us today," a friend chimed in.
"I'm definitely a vegetarian in ideals," Beene laughed.
"A lot of these people give their coupons away," said Jeremy Legg, a marketing director with Chick-Fil-A, which just reported record profits. "They just come because they love the company that much. There's a couple celebrating their anniversary with us. There are families, college kids, retired people."
He said the company started testing these camp-out grand openings in 2003 and quickly introduced the practice nationwide. "It didn't take long for an entire culture to pop up around the grand openings," he said. "A lot of these people are what we call 'raving fans.' They pay full price sometimes, even when they have a coupon. They introduce other people to the food. They invite people who've never tasted it."
Not everyone came for the fun or the love of the company, though. One woman in her 50s (who asked that her name not be published) came with her husband. They both work in construction. "There's no work right now," she said. "Where else can you get $300 worth of food in one day?" She got a wristband in the raffle. Her husband didn't.
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SHOW ME HOW
Brian Zawada, 46, has been an auto mechanic all of his adult life. Two recent heart attacks (he said the doctors call them "widow makers") have left him unable to work, though, until a doctor gives him a clean bill of health. Unshaven and missing a few teeth, Zawada sat awake in a camping chair as most of the people around him dozed off. He said his landlord told him about the giveaway.
"Times are really tough," Zawada said. "You gotta eat. They're giving away food. It's that simple."
And what would his doctors say about him eating a year's worth of fried chicken?
"It's better for me than beef," he said with a smile.