Tent city: Chick-fil-A’s fan base could rival the Dead’s

Written by on June 4, 2014 in Featured - No comments
Don Tomlinson and Tanni Stumpf relax at their well-equipped camp. - Photo by Erik Zygmont

Don Tomlinson and Tanni Stumpf relax at their well-equipped camp. – Photo by Erik Zygmont

Desiree Tomlinson tie-dyed her won Chick-fil-A shirt. - Photo by Erik Zygmont

Desiree Tomlinson tie-dyed her won Chick-fil-A shirt. – Photo by Erik Zygmont

The reporter was not allowed to leave without sampling some ring bologna. - Photo by Erik Zygmont

The reporter was not allowed to leave without sampling some ring bologna. – Photo by Erik Zygmont

“You’ve got a Chick-fil-A family, and you’ve got your own family,” said Dan Tomlinson of Waldorf, Md., at his 24th Chick-fil-A opening last week.

Tomlinson and about 200 others arrived at the new Chick-fil-A restaurant in Canton Crossing last Wednesday at 6 a.m. for a chance to win one of 100 giveaways of free weekly Chick-fil-A meals for a year. He was camped in a miniature tent city beside the restaurant with other hopefuls, young and old.

Tomlinson, who looked to be in his late 50s or early 60s, shared electricity, water-filled buckets for weighing down items from the wind, and tarps with a group of fellow campers unofficially led by Mike Swartz, who lives just south of Philadelphia and has been to over 60 Chick-fil-A openings.

As Tomlinson chats, two younger guys walk up and ask him if he knows anything about a storm that was supposed to hit that afternoon.

“This one went north of us,” said Tomlinson, gesturing at his radio. “There’s another line west of Washington—we’re watching it.”

The young men thank him and head back to their own tent, one of dozens set up in the Chick-fil-A parking lot. People wandered around, doing the things that campers do to pass the time—playing parking lot-friendly versions of horseshoes, listening to the radio, sitting and talking.

Tomlinson goes to openings with his wife, Desiree. If he doesn’t win one of the first 100 giveaways, she usually does.

“It was only on three trips that neither of us got in,” he said.

Ostensibly, the first 100 customers of a new Chick-fil-A to be in line at 6 a.m. on the opening day are awarded with free weekly Chick-fil-A meals for a year. However, it doesn’t seem to usually work that way; the “line” to get in a new Chick-fil-A opens at 6 a.m. the day prior to opening day. In the case of the Canton Crossing, store, which officially opened on Thursday, May 29, the line opened at 6 a.m. on Wednesday, May 28.

When more than 100 people are in the line when the line opens, then they are entered in a drawing for the giveaways. Chick-fil-A announces 100 winners and 10 alternates, who must stay camped out on the premises for 24 hours in order to collect their prizes. If a winner leaves Chick-fil-A before collecting her winnings, then an alternate takes her spot.

The prize is a gift card for 52 meals, which must be used within one year.

Brenda Morrow, who handles public relations surrounding Chick-fil-A openings, said that the First 100 promotion arose out of on-site brainstorming, without a lot of strategy.

“We had an idea, and we said, ‘You know, let’s just test it,'” she said. “We just executed it and relied strongly on a big PR campaign.”

“It’s a nice thing,” said Tomlinson with a shrug. “You get away; it’s 24 hours. You either get in or you don’t.”

Surrounded by people who travel to Chick-fil-A openings whenever they have free time—and some were retired and had lots of free time—I of course wondered if some had amassed more free chicken sandwich meals than they wanted or could use.

“What I do a lot is, if I’m going to the Chick-fil-A and I hear someone order a Number 1, I’ll offer to treat and say it’s on Dan Cathy [president and COO of Chick-fil-A],” said Desiree Tomlinson. “The kids behind the register will say, ‘This is exactly the corporate philosophy of Chick-fil-A.’”

Mike Swartz, the man who has been to over 60 openings, has given extra meal cards to his nieces and nephews, and he also treats other customers.

“I don’t try to be insulting, but I see sometimes that some elderly people can’t afford a meal—you’ll see them order just a sandwich,” he said.

Azem Hanna of New Jersey recently started traveling to Chick-fil-A openings with the group more or less led by Swartz. Like the others, he praised Swartz’s mastery of camping “infrastructure.”
“In the winter, he has a heater,” said Hanna. “In the summer, he has a fan. Ask him for anything; he has it. Shampoo—he has.”

Hanna, like Tomlinson, said that he goes to Chick-fil-A openings for the pleasantness of the experience.

“It’s a really nice group—a clean-cut group,” he said. “Everybody’s like a family here.”

Dan Cathy’s statements against same-sex marriage—and Chick-fil-A’s financial support of groups with aligning beliefs—put the company under scrutiny two years ago. None of the campers I spoke to brought up same-sex marriage, though they did note that the company is “faith-based.”
“This is a faith-based organization, and they mean it,” said Tomlinson, adding that Christian music would likely be played at some point during the camp-out.

“Chick-fil-A has some certain beliefs I like, such as not working on Sunday,” said Swartz, referring to the restaurant’s franchise-wide policy of being closed on Sundays.

Also on opening day at the Canton Crossing Chick-fil-A, owner/operator Amanda Brown held a toy drive for Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Center, collecting chew toys, balls and rope toys. Press materials for the new restaurant state that it has created 90 new jobs.

by Erik Zygmont

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