Chick-fil-A opening turns Aberdeen parking lot into campground

Is it a pilgrimage, a family vacation, a community gathering, a road trip, a type of tailgate, a chance at free food, a company promotion or a little bit of all of the above?

The day before a Chick-fil-a opening can be hard to explain, or at least to summarize.

The basic scene: More than 100 strangers build a campground on the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant.

They must be on the lot by 6 a.m. on Wednesday (Chick-fil-A restaurants generally open on a Thursday) to qualify as one of the "First 100," and they must stay overnight to get their year's worth of free meals.

For 24 hours, Chick-fil-A feeds, entertains and takes care of its camped-out fans. Friends are made, a sense of community builds. There are games of cornhole, Scrabble and cards. People read, surf the web, chat and, of course, eat Chick-fil-A.

That was the scene Wednesday in Aberdeen at Harford's third Chick-fil-A, the afternoon before the restaurant at Beards Hill Road and Route 22 would formally open its doors.

"If me and my husband both make [the First 100], that's 104 meals. That really adds up," explained Christine Humphrey, who came to Aberdeen from South Baltimore. "With four kids, I go through them in a month."

Humphrey has been coming to Chick-fil-A openings for five years, driving as far as 2 1/2 hours, into Pennsylvania, for the restaurant.

"With me being on [workers'] disability, I don't have to be at work in the morning," she said. Chick-fil-A employees "make it fun. They have DJs and kids always love it. It's a family event... They feed us all day – breakfast, lunch and dinner."

Humphrey said she also paid for a trip to DisneyWorld by selling her winning meal cards, but Chick-fil-A has since switched from giving away individual coupons to putting them all on one card.

Other changes have also been made as the "First 100" events grow in popularity.

"It's caught on more and more," Humphrey observed, noting one opening in Virginia had about 400 people. In Aberdeen, she came in as No. 68.

By 6 a.m., 180 people were at Aberdeen's event, roughly the same as the Forest Hill Chick-fil-A when it opened two years ago.

Visitors ranged from first-timers to veterans like Libby and Jake Knupp, of Bunker Hill, W.Va., who have been to 107 Chick-fil-A openings in about 23 states. (They were at the Forest Hill opening in 2012, although they did not immediately recall that particular visit.)

"I don't look at it as fast food," Libby Knupp said, explaining she likes "everything" about the restaurant. "We eat Chick-fil-A seven days a week. We buy it on Saturday to add to our dinner on Sunday. It's wonderful."

Rachel Kozlowski, of Abingdon, was at the event for her first time. She was dressed in a cow-spotted shirt and headband as she played a game of Scrabble.

Kozlowski noted she was not around when the restaurant opened in Abingdon.

"I have also done [Chick-fil-A's] Cow Appreciation Day so I thought [this event] would be fun, and I love Chick-fil-A," she said.

Lindsay Ables, spokeswoman for Chick-fil-A, added she thought Aberdeen's event got "a pretty representative crowd, as far as a mix of young and old."

Krisandra Williams, of Cheltenham, Prince George's County, was at her 22nd opening and said she has driven as far as Lancaster, Pa.

"I call it my concrete vacation," she said. "I come here because I end up meeting different people here. I can't afford to take a real vacation. You got music, you got food, you got shelter and a safe environment."

The morning of the opening drew a steady but not overwhelming crowd, Cindy Oxford, a marketing employee, said.

She said the "First 100" event went well, with the evening capped off with a cookie party. Two people dropped out before 6 a.m., as they did not realize they would have to spend the night to get the free combo meals, she said. (The restaurant picks alternates if people drop out.)

"It was a great group," Oxford said at about 10 a.m. Thursday, when just a handful of customers were at the new restaurant. "Everything went smoothly. It was a fun group."

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