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Chick-fil-A gives out coupons to mark new Severn store

The Baltimore Sun

Jake and Libby Knupp drove more than 100 miles in the wee hours of the morning to a parking lot in Severn and set up a giant tent with inflatable twin beds, a canopy and a table to resemble a cozy front porch.

They stayed through the night at the front of a line that had crowded one section of a growing shopping plaza.

Their prize wasn't a trendy gadget, free concert tickets or even an early-morning foray into a discount-laden store.

Instead, they were waiting on free chicken. Lots and lots of it, courtesy of Chick-fil-A, which celebrated the opening of the new store on Quarterfield Road at 6 a.m. yesterday by providing 52 free combo meal coupons to each of the first 100 people in line.

"It's like a vacation," said Jake Knupp, 69, of Midland, Va. "We've made so many good friends doing this, and it's a chance to travel around and be together."

Famous for its ads using the likeness of standing cows encouraging people to "Eat Mor Chikin," and its quirks - such as closing Sundays - the fast-food chain has inspired a subculture of die-hard fans who, like the Knupps, don't mind waiting in line all night for a year's worth of free weekly dinners.

Chick-fil-A began handing out freebies at store openings in October 2003 in Phoenix, and ever since, a hearty mix of younger college students, locals and baby boomer road warriors have filled up parking lots with tents and lawn chairs. The Severn location is the eighth in Anne Arundel County and 1,341st overall.

"Sometimes, as nutty as it may seem, it's so tremendous," said Tom McAuliffe, "operator" of the Chick-fil-A branch in the Columbia Mall who was on hand Wednesday night to support Joe Dinoto Jr., operator of the Severn location.

Chick-fil-A owns the property for all its stores and provides local operators with food supplies. Both parties share profits, although no one would discuss who gets what.

Dinoto also operates a store at Arundel Mills mall, and his other family members run four other area stores. He was in a jovial mood, as the throng of people out chatting and dancing to pop songs pointed to a thriving location.

Among those like the Knupps who drove miles and miles to make the opening, there is some competition for who will be first in line. This is the second week in a row Jake and Libby have been first. Last week, they drove 617 miles to Kennesaw, Ga., and they plan to make the next grand opening in Folsom, Pa., toward the end of the month.

All told, they've driven 5,000 miles in the past two months, making it in the top 100 for six Chick-fil-A grand openings and accumulating 624 free combo meal coupons, which they frequently give away to friends and family.

Libby Knupp said it's the best way to spend time with her husband, who's buying and reselling government surplus goods and "tinkering with the stuff day and night.

"When he comes to these, he's relaxed, he's sitting and talking with me, I love it," said Libby Knupp, 63.

Not everyone came from far and away. Owings Mills resident Fitzhugh Christopher, Jr., 39, took a day off work Wednesday to wait in line. He arrived at the store at noon, in time to be number 84 on the list.

"For me, this is just a chance to hold up a picture next to the cow [mascot] and tell people that this is the craziest thing I've done, waiting all night for a bunch of free food," he said, laughing and adding that he might do it again for another local opening. "Once you do one, it's like, you're game, as long as it's not in the winter."

Chick-fil-A workers register those who arrive to wait, so they don't have to be in a literal line until the next morning at 6 a.m.

They also feed them, with occasional "nugget parties," and do raffle prize drawings in the 24 hours before they hand out the free coupons with much fanfare. On Wednesday evening, they had all the children in the parking lot, who aren't eligible to be counted among the 100, assembled to catch stuffed-animal cows strapped with parachutes that workers were hurling from the roof. Other kids played soccer inside an inflatable mini-ring, and college-age youths played four square near the storefront.

David Allison, a Severn native who noticed the hubbub after he got off work Wednesday morning, decided to make the night a "camping excursion" with his kids. He got ticket number 82 at 11:40 a.m., and sat comfortably in a chair as his son David, 7, and daughter Taylor, 5, ran in and around the small tent they had set up.

Allison, 41, has eaten Chick-fil-A on his way to losing 100 pounds within the past year. Instead of greasy cheeseburgers, he took to eating its grilled chicken sandwiches once a week.

"I like this place a lot," he said. "And I also get to count this as a campout, so I couldn't lose."

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