A parking lot kingdom for a chicken sandwich

by Brian Clarey

This is insane.

It’s a cold December night and the temperature is just starting to drop. Yet there are more than a hundred people in this parking lot on Pisgah Church Road bundled in hats, coats and gloves, drinking hot chocolate and blowing into their hands.

A village of tents has sprung up here since dawn, like 60 of them in a perimeter around the building, with lawn chairs and propane heaters out front, sleeping bags and camping gear inside.

A few guys toss a football under the halogen lights while clusters of teens and twentysomethings play backgammon and Texas Hold ‘Em; others stand and wave their arms in front of the band – yeah, there’s a band out here, slinging some oldies like “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Free Bird” and some newer tunes that the kids acknowledge with whoops and hollers.

It’s like a tailgate party. Or a Dead show. Or a cola commercial.

But it’s none of these things. The crowd, this group of people a hundred strong, is gathered here in the cold night and will stay until the sun breaks the horizon because of a chicken sandwich.

Well, 52 chicken sandwiches.

On the morrow the new Chick-fil-A will open its doors for the first time. And the first 100 people in line get free food – a No. 1 combo of a chicken sandwich, waffle-cut fries and a fountain drink – once a week for a year, a promotion that began in 2003 and has since developed something of a cult following.

“This is like a Chick-fil-A campground,” says David LeBlanc, bundled in a coat and hat in the number-one slot at the front of the line of tents. “Just with no trees.”

The Greensboro resident has been here since 6 in the morning, though he looks old enough to know better.

“My father-in-law started the tradition,” he explains, “and I’m a good husband.”

His father-in-law, Bernie, is at this moment standing in line at another Chick-fil-A opening in Raleigh, also in the number-one slot.

A few positions up the line sits a group of retirees from Mebane, Burlington and Graham, their chairs positioned in a circle.

Vicky Kimball says this is the ninth Chick-fil-A opening party she and her husband Harold have attended.

“We’re retired and this is one of our hobbies,” she says. “And where else at our age can we make $500 worth of food in one night?”

Gary Evans is here with his daughters Samantha and Jessie. He won’t be spending the night, but Samantha has landed spot number 75 in the free-food line. Jessie, who’s right now singing with the band, will not be spending the night: she’s not quite 18 years old, and the house rules specifically state that the promotion is for adults only.

“I’d probably let her stay,” Evans says, “but those are the rules.”

A bit further up the line Mike Richardson sits with some of his pals from UNCG. “I got eight dollars in my checking account,” he says. “That’s what I’m doing here.”

Another UNCG student, Kiera Gallup, who holds the No. 92 position, probably shouldn’t be here at all.

“I have a sociology final exam tomorrow morning at eight,” she says.

But hey, free chicken is free chicken.

Brad Waters will not be spending the night – he’ll be going home shortly to look after Drake, the family’s Labrador, but his wife Denise will be sleeping in the tent with their son Tim, who’s been playing guitar tonight with the band, the Youth Praise Band of Christ Community Church.

Their tent is in slot number 55.

After the band wraps there will be a DJ and games like hot potato and musical chairs. At midnight there will be an ice cream party. And in the morning, before the restaurant doors open, there will be prizes like camping gear, gift bags and, of course, free chicken.

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