As campouts go, the one that started outside the new Chick-fil-A restaurant at Central and Rock Road early Wednesday morning was pretty cushy.
Not only was it catered, but entertainment was provided – and just-constructed indoor restrooms were only a few steps away.
More than 150 people showed up to camp at the restaurant before 6 a.m. on Wednesday, hoping to participate in a standard Chick-fil-A publicity stunt that awards free food for a year to loyal customers who camp out on the eve of opening day.
The restaurant, which officially opens at 6 a.m. Thursday, is Wichita’s first free-standing Chick-fil-A. A scaled-down version of the Georgia-based chain, which specializes in fried chicken sandwiches and waffle fries, has operated inside Wichita State University’s Rhatigan Student Center since 2005.
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It’s tradition for franchise owners to invite the public to camp out for the 24 hours prior to the official opening of the doors. To keep crowds under control, they randomly draw for 100 spaces from everyone who shows up prior to 6 a.m. the day before. Those people must stay on the premises until 6 a.m. opening day to win a box of coupons good for one value meal a week for a year, a roughly $300 value.
Campers are treated to free breakfast and lunch in the tent cities they erect in the stores’ parking lots, although they must walk through the drive-through to get the food. Throughout the day, Chick-fil-A employees entertain the crowd with games and competitions. Later, the campers are invited inside for dinner so that the new employees can practice their skills serving a full dining room. A parking-lot ice cream social follows in the early evening before a night under the stars on the freshly poured asphalt.
Several of Wednesday’s campers were from Wichita and nearby cities. They’d heard about the event and were intrigued by the prize, by the fun factor or by both.
Jason Crile, a Wichita resident and longtime devotee of Chick-fil-A’s spicy chicken sandwich and Polynesian dipping sauce, planned for several weeks to participate in the campout.
He and his buddy Josiah Williams won spots in the camping lottery, and they stocked their tent with several comforts of home. Crile lounged on an air mattress while Williams reclined in a lounge chair. The two shared pudding cups and a portable power outlet that allowed both to use their laptops.
Though he’s never participated in such an event, Crile said it sounded like fun. He’d been laid off from his job two weeks ago, so he had the time.
“I can definitely use some free meals,” he said.
What would the duo tell people who thought a Chick-fil-A campout was a little strange?
“Well, it is kind of weird to camp out in a parking lot,” Williams said with a laugh.
“I say, ‘I’m going to get 52 free meals this year,’ ” Crile said.
Two other campers, Rick Nobles and Toni Kirthey from Oklahoma City, have been accused of strange behavior by their friends, too.
The couple has made a habit over the past two years of traveling to Chick-fil-A openings across the region. Wednesday’s was their ninth.
They got started when a Chick-fil-A opened near their home and had so much fun they kept at it. The pair, who describe themselves as “semi-retired,” say the Chick-fil-A journeys are their vacations.
“We’re getting fed and playing games. We’re meeting people and having fun,” Nobles said. “I tell people it’s like being on a cruise ship, but not quite as elegant.”