It’s 5 am in the morning as I arrive at what is the newest sign that our little apple is growing larger and larger. Chick-fil-a is finally opening a store in Manhattan, Kansas. I’ve heard for years about the first 100 contest and I figure this is the best chance I have at ever taking part. Whenever CFA opens a new store, the first 100 customers get “Chick-Fil-a for a year.” I add quotes because it’s 52 free number 1 or 2 combo meals, which means I won’t be enjoying the spicy sandwich for which I actually come to their establishment for.
Anyway, I have other reasons for taking this challenge as well. I want to get to know people in the community of Manhattan and I figure if lock-ins help awkward junior highers get to know each other, it might help my still awkward self do the same. And then of course there is the fact that we love the food and our “out to eat” budget is large enough for our family to eat out about once a month, so this would certainly stretch that a bit further.
So when I arrive at 5 am I find there are 30 to 40 people waiting. As I join them I begin to realize while they’ve come from Wichita, Kansas City, Tulsa even Chicago, these people mostly already know each other. There is a subculture of people who travel taking vacation days and bringing their whole family for the event. They share about epic openings in faraway towns and favorite DJs who manage to get everyone dancing. I’m a little anxious that guy might be our DJ since I don’t dance without a posse and I’ve come to this party all alone.
By 6 am only 85 people have arrived which means we won’t face the dreaded lottery that can ruin the hopes of so many who travel this strange circuit of grand openings. I brought with me a bag of books and my wife’s pink lawn chair. As tent city is being erected it occurs to me just how under prepared I am for these 24 hours. One group had a couch and ping pong table, yes an actually ping pong table. I do find Jonathan Haney is here as well, he’s a friend and fellow pastor in town and he’s come for the same reasons I have. Yet, we both realize quickly that very few of these people are actually from our community which means one major motivation is moot.
I find these people intriguing. I do basic math in my head and realize being local this makes sense for me financially, but many who traveled here will spend more than they make meaning they’re really bad at math or they have other reasons for being here. The way they talk about other openings begins to open my eyes to the reality that most aren’t here for the free food.
I meet a guy from Chicago named Rich, this is his 40th opening, it’s August and it’s already his 12th this year. That’s 2,080 free meals. He’s about 60 and as I listen to him I think he belongs on NPR’s “This American Life.” He speaks with an Italian accent and immediately feels like an old friend.
He says he’s always loved fried chicken and had heard about Chick-Fil-a for years but couldn’t find it near his home. Then on a vacation with his family they happened upon a restaurant right a dinner time. He still remembers his first order: a number 1 and a vanilla milkshake. The way he tells the story sounds like a religious conversion. He took a bite of the sandwich and let out sounds of ecstasy, of immense enjoyment so much so that his family sat embarrassed by the sounds. Not everyone experienced it the same, they liked it, but not like Rich did.
He then went on to tell me about driving and taking buses to openings around the country. He has friends who were traveling to Atlantic City to gamble, he joined them on the trip, but went to a first 100 event while they hit the casinos. Those same men who flew across the country to gamble told him, “Rich, there’s a thin line between being a fan and being a crazy lunatic.” We got a t-shirt at the end, and since he’s been to 40 of these, he owns 40 CFA t-shirts. It’s literally the only t-shirts he owns. He uses some of the free meals, and gives a lot away (to friends, or even the lady checking his groceries at the store).
He was the most accomplished, but by no means the only person traveling with this unexpected carnival of grand openings. There were a couple of families who used vacation time to camp in a parking lot for 24 hours. At first it seems ridiculous to me, but as the day went on it made sense. It’s camping, but you don’t have to cook any food since they provided us with every meal. Plus you get use of clean restrooms, electricity, no one smells like fire, your friends are provided for you and there is no chance of the campers next to you getting drunk and shouting obscene things you hoped your children wouldn’t be learning about on a camping trip.
I found that everyone had their own reasons for being here and apart from first timers it was never about the free chicken. One man traveled two hours to be here. He’s in his 50s, lost his job in June, has grown children and a wife who is still working. He said it gave him something to do, some way to contribute even while he searches for new employment.
It was a bit like being in detention or camp or maybe a really great prison. We weren’t allowed to leave the premises so when I wanted to walk to burn calories it was in circles. I tracked my progress using RunKeeper on my phone and laughed at myself when I saw how ridiculous 2.4 miles in a tiny circle looks like.
I loved the adventure of meeting all these new people, but one of the best parts was visits from friends and family. Laura came by twice and brought me a pillow and blanket as an up grade to my chair. Then Jon and Tricia Dunning upgraded my pillow to a whole tent which gave me an honest to goodness residence in this tent city. The Arnett’s stopped by after Audrey’s first day of school and brought a much needed Cherry Limeade. Damian and Heidi mostly pointed out how insane it was that I was doing this and then sought to afflict me with news that they would all be going to Taco Lucha while I sat in prison. That night I almost talked Josiah into staying the night while he visited, but with only a small chance of getting the prize it just wasn’t worth a night sleeping on asphalt.
As the day progressed CFA provided games and prizes on a regular basis, in the evening a DJ came and ran a talent show and a dance contest which prove to be very entertaining. The college students were great, they danced their hearts out song after song and when the DJ packed his stuff up and left they broke out a guitar and started an impromptu time of worship. Late at night they brought us Chocolate Chunk Cookies and a glass of milk. Some people headed to bed after though I don’t know how they slept with the heat and light and noise.
The owner David is great, he loves Manhattan and is a graduate of K-State. He’s very personable and I was impressed how he remembered both Laura and my names from when we previously met him. I don’t think I’d do it again, but I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I was there for the Manhattan opening and to see into this world I never knew existed. If you have a chance to do it (Wichita in the Spring) I would highly recommend it. And if you do tell Rich hello for me.
You can check out the whole album of pictures if you’re interested
Here are a few videos