They descended on the shopping center parking lot carrying tents, guitars, kiddie pools - even a cracked leather ottoman. Teenagers came in groups, parents led broods of children and one family arrived with seven members, ranging in age from 3 to 85.
As they spread out on the steaming asphalt, one word was on everyone's lips: chicken.
Dozens of people camped out at an Owings Mills shopping center last night, waiting not for concert tickets or the latest Harry Potter book, but for a year's worth of chicken sandwiches.
Four years ago, the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain started a promotion offering coupon books good for 52 chicken sandwich combination meals for the first 100 people to arrive at the opening of a new store. The promotion has hatched a subculture of people who tailgate overnight, some traveling from other states, waiting for the restaurant to open in the early morning.
"My kids think I've gone off my rocker," said 73-year-old George Slovensky who drove from his home in Raleigh, N.C., for the opening of the Owings Mills store at 6 a.m. today. It's the 13th chicken sandwich campout he has attended since December.
"It's something for me to do and I can pass my coupons on to other people who need it," he said, adding that he is "addicted" to the restaurant's milkshakes.
By 5 p.m. yesterday, a half-dozen tents had sprung up in the shimmery heat of the parking lot. Teenagers tossed a football, college students shuffled cards and Lionel Richie's "All Night Long" boomed on the stereo system. Chuck and Ashley Nam's four children jumped in a kiddie pool of ice water.
"I don't recommend drinking it," said Chuck Nam, 40.
The Nams drove up from Montgomery Village in northern Montgomery County for the event, which about 50 other members of their church planned to attend.
The majority of the people camping out were affiliated with a handful of churches in Gaithersburg, Owings Mills and Westminster. The chain's founder, S. Truett Cathy, is described on his Web site as a "devoutly religious man." The restaurants are closed on Sundays.
Cathy opened the Dwarf Grill in a suburb of Atlanta in 1946 and introduced the trademarked term "Chick-fil-A" nearly 20 years later. The first restaurant bearing that name opened in the food court of an Atlanta mall in 1967, according to a company brochure, and today there are 1,315 locations.
In 2003, the chain opened its first free-standing store in Phoenix, Ariz., and introduced the coupon incentive to the first 100 customers. At first, customers arrived in the early morning to receive the coupons, said Mary Sue Easmeil, a Chick-fil-A event coordinator.
"As we've done this more and more, they come earlier and earlier," she said.
The restaurant has responded by packing the evening with events for families. A person dressed as the company's signature self-preservation-minded cow wandered through the crowd. A misting tent was set up in one corner of the steamy parking lot and games, including an egg toss and a cheese puff relay, were scheduled for the evening.
No one was going hungry, either. Employees gave out milkshakes at 3 p.m., sandwiches and chips at 5 and had planned a "nugget party" and ice cream sundae party for late night.
"It will be a memorable evening," said Debbie Perrine, 54. The Westminster resident was camping out with her husband, daughter and son-in-law and two grandchildren, as well as her 85-year-old mother. "I'll go home and sleep tomorrow."