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Birds of a feather flock to parking lot party

Detailing one reporter’s quest for a year of free Chick-fil-A

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Hundreds braved severe thunderstorms and pouring rain on Tuesday night as they camped out in the parking lot of Chick-fil-A’s newest location on Highway 96 in Franklin — all for the love of chicken sandwiches and waffle fries.

Reporter Brooke Wanser, an avowed fan of the Southern fast-food chain, braved the elements to report on the First 100 Campout experience.

Since 2003, the chain has been hosting these overnight campouts in which the first 100 people to show up and spend the night within the boundaries of the restaurant property receive a free meal each week for a year. Here is an account of her evening:

5:20 p.m. — When I decided to spend the night in the parking lot of a Chick-fil-A, I didn’t expect it to be during a severe thunderstorm. I arrive at the restaurant, dozens are circling, looking for parking in the pouring rain. Some are already standing in line, prepared with umbrellas and rain ponchos.

5:50 p.m. — I finally make it inside the restaurant and learn that I am one of 232 people. Natalie Giddens, a Chick-fil-A contractor who works for CP Communications, said the restaurant has been seeing an uptick in the number of people turning out for the overnight campouts since it changed the rules from a 24-hour campout to a 12-hour event. 

6:15 p.m. — The rules say that those seeking to be among the 100 winners must live within qualifying ZIP codes. It turns out that more than 100 on hand are, so there will have to a raffle. Shouts and cheers go up among those whose numbers are called. It’s a mix of teenagers, young folks, older folks, families and couples.

7:30 p.m. — After the calling of 100 numbers and 10 alternates, my hopes are dashed. I haven’t been chosen. But since I have already committed to reporting this story, I’m in it for the long haul. I head out to my car to retrieve my tent, air mattress, sleeping bag and gear. The rain has stopped but dark clouds hover ominously.

7:45 p.m. — I have never pitched a tent, so my parking lot neighbor, Leola, helps me set up my borrowed one. The clouds are brimmed with blue, pink and gold, giving the parking lot a celestial feel.

8 p.m. — Since I am now, technically, a guest at the event, I retrieve my free Chick-fil-A sandwich, which comes with the signature sauce and waffle potato chips. I’m starving, and I tear into it. I spot beverage stations set up, with water, sweet and unsweet iced tea. 

Owner Bill Pfaender, a veteran of the Marines and operator of the Thoroughbred Square location, is walking around and along with his wife, greets guests.

Roman, who works for Elevate Experiences, is the emcee for the night’s games. It’s his 42nd opening. He asks the crowd why Chick-fil-A does the First 100 Campout. 

“Free stuff?” one kid shouts. “Service,” guesses another teenager.

“We believe in something called generosity,” he says. “Yes, we give out a lot of free stuff, and it’s a really great marketing ploy. But we give because we like to give, and we believe in generosity.”

He also stresses the importance of community, and then walks the crowd through a series of games and a scavenger hunt while high-fiving strangers. 

8:30 p.m. — I wander back to my tent and strike up a conversation with a couple next to me. Derek and Shauntelle are at their second Chick-fil-A campout. During their first, they were among alternate winners, though neither of them received the free year of meals. But tonight, Shauntelle is one of the 100, and says she will share with Derek.

Shauntelle is from Huntsville, Derek, from New Hampshire. When they met, she introduced him to the Southern staple. He knows it is her kryptonite.

“When we get into a fight, I don’t bring her flowers, I bring her Chick-fil-A,” Derek says. 

9:15 p.m. — Games are still going on. Alan, the man behind my tent, fires up his grill and starts cooking brats. He tells me he fasted all day, so he’s hungry. He was a camper in his youth and wanted to come prepared. 

Originally from Canada, he lives in Forrest Crossing. “It’s going to be great to have one (Chick-fil-A) so close by,” he says with a smile.

10 p.m. — All participants are called to the front of the store for a mandatory line check. Then, it’s milk and cookies before bedtime. I head into the restroom to wash my face and brush my teeth.

The sounds of children playing and people laughing lull me into a night of fitful sleep.

4:45 a.m. — “Wakey, wakey!” A voice blares from the sound system into the serene morning. We’re informed that we must use the restroom by 5 a.m. if we need it. I stumble inside. 

One woman in line is on crutches with a boot. She broke her foot while at a lake this past weekend. She’s with a group and says she couldn’t back out on them.

The scene is a little like the final day of camp. We aren’t allowed to break down tents yet but people begin deflating air mattresses and packing up other gear.

Leola says her friends on Facebook ask her why she camped out. “Yes, I’m saving, what, $325, but I’m doing it for the experience,” she says.

5:45 a.m. — People start queueing up for their prize. The 100 winners get Chick-fil-A shirts to don. Grinning, they follow the cow mascot into the restaurant where employees greet them with cowbells and cheers.

Pfaender and his wife stand at the end of a red carpet. He shakes each person’s hand and gives them their gift card good for 52 No. 1 combo meals. Alternates receive a consolation prize: cards for a few free sandwiches, breakfast items and milkshakes.

Filing out the back door, people make their way to tear down tents and head out into the world, some to school, others to work. A peaceful lull envelops the parking lot as the sun rises. I leave, cheerful and content.

Some people don’t understand why anyone would spend the night in a parking lot for free Chick-fil-A. But after doing so, I do understand. Like Leola said, it’s not really about the free food. It’s about experiencing the uplifting spirit of community.

I may not have received 52 free meals, but I did receive something that’s hard to put a price on: joy and hope from a group of strangers who came together for one night. 

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