Chick-fil-A's grand opening at Cortez Plaza attracts cult-like following

newsintern@bradenton.comAugust 1, 2013 

BRADENTON -- They come from all over the country to "Eat Mor Chikin" as the cows in the advertising campaign would say.

It seems Chick-fil-A has created a cult following at its grand opening events, in which they give cards for 52 meals to each of the first 100 people who line up for their restaurant openings.

More than 200 people showed up for Bradenton's newest Chick-fil-A's "First 100," but they weren't there just for the chance to win 52 free combo cards which include: the original chicken sandwich, medium waffle fries, and a medium soft drink.

These loyal Chick-fil-A lovers were there for the event. The free food was just a bonus.

"It's a package deal with me," said Richard Coley, 61. "I'm impressed and in love with Chick-fil-A for its food and their work with the community."

Coley, who has traveled coast to coast for more than 100 Chick-fil-A grand openings, joined 177 campers at the restaurant's new location on 14th Street West before sunrise Wednesday.

Since the first time he attended a grand opening event in 2005, Coley has earned his nickname the "Raving Fan."

"I've done 107 grand openings in 26 states," the St. Petersburg resident said. "I've gone as far as California for a grand opening."

Even though he eats the quick-service food six times a week -- and feeds his mom Chick-fil-A whenever he doesn't feel like cooking -- Coley said the real reason he was planning to spend the night in a tent in Bradenton was for the fun.

"It's like going to a family reunion since I have a lot of friends that do the same thing," Coley said. "Plus it's always nice to look forward to free food, but it's definitely not why I'm out here."

Coley brought his 86-year-old mother along Tuesday to spend the day and night on the restaurant's parking lot.

"She loves the 'First 100'," Coley said. "It helps me out, too, having her by my side since I am her caregiver -- and having free food for a year saves me from one less meal to cook."

Company officials have gotten used to the huge following and prepare for the campers, who show up the day before the official grand opening. They have people on hand who provide snacks throughout the day, and party planners arrange scavenger hunts, Frisbee tournaments and other games. A live DJ also helps keep people entertained.

The 52 free combo cards are good for a year. But participants can choose how and when they want to use them.

"It's really up to the winners how they want to use the 52-meal plan," Chick-fil-A's spokeswoman Cindi Pickett said.

Winners are not limited to how lucky they get since they can win more than once within a year.

"There aren't any limits to how many times you can win, so people that attend a lot of grand openings either give out their extra cards or have more free meals for that year," Pickett said.

Devin Myers drove 11 hours from Georgia, in part, to attend his first Chick-fil-A grand opening event.

"This was a combination of a road trip, visiting my friends and enjoying the grand opening," Myers, 26, said.

John Ruck, 84, was at his 60th grand opening.

The St. Petersburg resident knows the grandson of Chick-fil-A's first owner -- and that has made him a long time fan.

"The restaurant that opened in St. Pete was opened by the grandson of the owner, and he and I became close friends," Ruck said. "He invited me to go to a grand opening in California when he got married and I went, and since then I just enjoy doing these."

Ruck's been a winner at the "First 100" 48 times. This year, he was No. 102 in line, making him one of 10 alternates for the first 100 in case anyone can't make it through the night.

The winners wear white wristbands to help hold their place in line, and guests of winners wear yellow ones.

The event kicked off at 6 a.m. Wednesday and will continue until 6 a.m Thursday just before Chick-fil-A's 6:30 grand opening.

As part of regulations, fans aren't allowed to leave the site and staff members monitor the group to make sure no one cheats.

"There are 100 staff members who are here just for the grand opening," said franchise operator Nathan Hoeksema.

Hoeksema, who has worked for Chick-fil-A since he was a high school sophomore, hired 77 employees to launch his restaurant at Cortez Plaza.

"I think we'll end up in the 70-range with employees, but it can always change based on sales and such," Hoeksema said.

Thursday's grand opening has created quite a buzz in the community.

"Honestly it's a great PR thing, but seeing all the tents out here puts an exclamation point on the event," he added.

Off-duty police officers are helping to keep campers safe and the event from getting out of hand.

"We had security last night to keep people off property and we have off-duty officers to keep people safe," Hoeksema said.

As part of the event, people get free breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack, which cost the restaurant nearly $3,000. Unlimited water and sweet tea were offered, too.


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