Forest Hill's new Chick-fil-A restaurant was the site of a pilgrimage of sorts, as nearly 200 people filled the parking lot with tents, camping gear, games and fellowship Wednesday morning.
The day before a Chick-fil-A opening is now known as an "event" for those who drive hundreds of miles, in the early hours of the morning, to spend time with other fellow Chick-fil-A celebrants.
The restaurant on Route 924 did not formally open until Thursday morning, but the building was already brightly lit and bustling Wednesday, filled with staff members, a table set up to welcome visitors and drinks available for everyone.
Spokeswoman Lindsay Ables said 188 people were lined up by 6 a.m., when the restaurant gave out a one-year supply of free meals to the first 100 hopefuls, aged 18 and older.
"We have a lot of raving fans," Ables said, explaining visitors are fed breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as entertained all day. The schedule included an ice cream party, games and musical entertainment later in the day.
Many campers said the Chick-fil-A "events" created a makeshift community for them, and they eagerly pointed out those who had been to 40, 60 or even 90 such openings.
A big part of that atmosphere seemed to be the restaurant's religious values.
Chick-fil-A is known for being closed on Sundays and its president, Dan Cathy, recently sparked controversy for vocally opposing same-sex marriage.
Michael Swartz, of Norwood, Pa., said it's a site for "Christian friendship" and he thinks a lot of people who come to the openings feel the same way.
"People who come to Chick-fil-A have more family values than [at] other restaurants and I think they are more loyal to Chick-fil-A because of Chick-fil-A's Christian background," Swartz said, adding he has lost count of how many events he has attended.
Sabrina Bratcher, of Telford, Pa., visited the Forest Hill eatery with a friend for her third time at an opening.
"They are a lot of fun. Chick-fil-A does a lot for us. They feed you all your meals; you are like a guest," she said.
"It's just a great time and the incentive [is] the 52 meals competition," she said. "You meet people from all over the country. I love that it's a Christian organization and based on family values."
Many also came for just a fun day and a chance to get away.
Anne Royle, of Wilmington, Del., said it was the closest she would get to a real wilderness experience with her sons, Scott and Jacob Royle.
"I started doing it so I can take him camping," she said about Scott, with a smile. "I am not going in the woods."
"Mama Sue puts on a good event," Royle added about the company's event organizer, known as "Mama Sue" to all the visitors.
It was the first time at the event for William Tomlinson, who left his home in Waldorf, Charles County, at 12:30 a.m. to attend the opening with his mother, a more frequent visitor.
"I didn't even get any sleep," Tomlinson said, explaining he is attending culinary school, but likes to get Chick-fil-A food in the mornings.
He noted that at an Ocean City "premiere" – an event held two days before a Chick-fil-A grand opening – he got to see how their chicken sandwiches are made in their kitchen.
"It's a fun time. I came here, I didn't really know what to expect," Tomlinson said. "I got breakfast, got a cot, friendly people."
Ables, the Chick-fil-A spokeswoman, said the company has done such events since 2003 and they have stayed popular.
"It's rare to do an opening where, on a Wednesday at 6 a.m., there is less than 100 people," she said.
More devotees, more promotions
The grand opening on Thursday kept the restaurant bustling as well, with the parking lot and building staying full through the afternoon.
Sue James, a marketing coordinator, said the Forest Hill opening was very smooth and the distribution of the "First 100" giveaways went well.
All children visiting were getting "Mini Moo" stuffed cows and adults were getting coupons for a free breakfast entrée, she said.
A balloon artist and family activities are scheduled for Saturday.
"Forest Hill seems to be excited that we are here," James said. "We have gotten a lot of positive feedback."
James said the response to a Chick-fil-A opening is always enthusiastic.
"It's just good food and good service, so that makes a difference," she said, adding that the company loves to work with local groups on family-friendly activities.
"Chick-fil-A partners really well with the community," she said.