Ken Hill sometimes plans his life around Chick-fil-A grand openings.
He camps out for waffle fries and drives hundreds of miles to stake his spot by the dawn’s early light. After all, the early bird gets the chicken sandwich.
I’m not sure if anyone has come up with a name for folks like Ken. They travel to unfamiliar turf in distant states. They pitch their tents and roll out their sleeping bags with the goal of being among the first 100 people in line before the new restaurant opens the next morning.
The reward? Free Chick-fil-A sandwich meals -- the equivalent of one per week for a year.
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Ken has followed fellow Chick-filoyalists to 27 of these events in eight states. He has cracked the “first 100” enough times to earn more than 800 coupons for a No. 1 combo. He could dine every day for two years, three months and 12 days.
No, he has not sprouted feathers.
“I probably eat at Chick-fil-A twice a week,” he said. “I give a lot of the coupons away. They make great gifts.”
Ken is 72 years old, so he’s no spring chicken tender. He has braved the elements in parking lot tents and has waited the required 24 hours to collect his reward.
There is never a guarantee, though. He is among the first 100 names drawn only about 60 percent of the time.
Ken is well-known around Macon with a camera in his hand. He spent 16 years with WMAZ-TV (1969-85) and has been a professional photographer since 1974. He also does class reunions.
His mission was sparked after he read a story by business writer Linda Morris in The Telegraph on Oct. 27, 2011. It covered the grand opening of the new Chick-fil-A at 1569 Bass Road. More than 150 people from seven states transformed the upper end of the Bass Plantation shopping center into a “tent city.”
He was curious. It looked like fun.
The customary “First 100” began in 2003 when the first stand-alone Chick-fil-A opened in Arizona. Customers began lining up 18 hours before the restaurant could serve its first order of nuggets with honey mustard.
That jump-started a tradition for the Atlanta-based restaurant chain. Over the past 10 years, Chick-fil-A has given away nearly $21 million in free food at some 750 grand openings. The company claims these celebrations have provided the “backdrop for family reunions, girls’ nights out, birthday celebrations, college study parties and several marriage proposals.” Folks often bring their own recliners, televisions, computers and card games.
Ken has a passion for traveling and camping out. On May 16, 2012, he drove 156 miles to Cornelia, for his initial grand opening adventure. By 7 a.m. there were more than 240 people in the parking lot. All the candidates were put in a lottery, and Ken was one of the 100 lucky names drawn.
“It’s all very organized and very controlled,” he said. “You have to stay for 24 hours. If you leave, you’re disqualified. They have security. It’s a great experience. They feed you all day and bring in a deejay at night to play music. They wake you up at 5 a.m. the next morning, line you up and give you the coupons. Then they march you out of there so they can get ready to open. They will even help you take down your tent.’’
Ken was surprised at the crowd composition, which he said is usually about 40 percent college students, 40 percent senior citizens and 20 percent local folks.
He has met retired educators, accountants and flight attendants. “Many of them could buy anything they want, so they’re not doing it for the free chicken sandwiches,’’ he said. “They are there because it’s fun. They enjoy the camaraderie.’’
Ken has attended grand openings as far away as St. Louis, and Martinsville, Va., where the weather was so dreadful the restaurant’s management allowed everyone to sleep inside the restaurant for the night. In Terre Haute, Ind., he was the 10th name drawn in the lottery and was interviewed by a local television station.
On Feb. 20, 2013, one year ago this week, he drove to Chattanooga, Tenn., for the grand opening of the new Chick-fil-A in Brainerd Village. He had no luck in the “First 100” drawing, so he drove 85 miles to Tullahoma, Tenn., where another Chick-fil-A was opening the same day. There, he got to meet CEO Dan Cathy, the son of Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy.
Next up for Ken is a grand opening on March 13 in Middleburg, Fla., south of Jacksonville. In early April, he will have to choose between openings in Spartanburg, S.C., and Asheville, N.C., on the same day.
“I used to try to go to every grand opening within a 300-mile radius,” he said. “Now, I make it 400 miles, and sometimes more than that.”
That should keep the Chick-fil-A cows happy.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.