Waiting in the cold and dark for free fast food

Posted: March 14, 2014

BURLINGTON TWP. You might call them repeat customers.

One hundred Chick-fil-A aficionados arrived at the store's new Burlington Township location before 6 a.m. Wednesday, setting up a makeshift tent city and prepared to stay - for 24 hours.

Although not exactly fast food, the long wait was all in pursuit of an appetizing promise: 52 free No. 1 meals for a year.

The promotional event, a giveaway hosted for restaurant chain grand openings, drew people young and old, and from Mount Laurel to Virginia.

Cora Blyer, 76, traveled more than three hours from Manassas, Va., with her son. She successfully did another giveaway in North Carolina last year, she said, and often uses the free meals to feed others.

"I tell the Lord, if he blesses me with this, I'm going to bless others," she said, sitting in a fold-up chair near a DJ, her head wrapped in a knit scarf.

All attendees who arrived before 6 a.m. were placed into a random drawing. The first 100 winners were then tasked with one challenge: stay until 6 a.m. Thursday. At least six were cut from the drawing but deemed "alternates," eligible for other prizes unless a winner left.

With rain and wind, and temperatures expected to drop to the low 20s overnight, many of the chicken enthusiasts came prepared with blankets, layered clothing, and tarps for their tents.

Several said they knew what to expect because they had done it before.

Alex Hartsfield, a 22-year-old from Port Republic, Md., said Wednesday's event was his third. As a resident assistant at LeTourneau University in Texas, he's used free meals to treat students in his dorm.

"Treat friends to meals, it's great," the senior civil engineering major said as he played the board game Outburst with his fiancee, brother, and two new friends from the Glassboro area.

It was the sixth go for Tim Wolf, a 34-year-old pastor from Mount Laurel. His typical order: the spicy chicken sandwich with sauce, fries, and a soda.

Wolf and three friends "adopted" a new companion, Marlon Webb, 37, into their tent for the wait. Webb in turn provided concrete blocks to hold the fort down, a generator, and a projector to watch The Walking Dead on a fold-up table inside.

Webb, a National Guard member from Springfield Township, said he first ate at Chick-fil-A in San Antonio, Texas, more than a decade ago. "I liked it, but they didn't have it" in his neighborhood, he said.

Owner-operator Jamie Gottschling said he and his wife, Kathleen, began the process of opening the store on Route 541 north of I-295 about two years ago. Gottschling retired as a Army lieutenant colonel in December 2012.

"It's been a dream for us for about two years," he said. "But I know a lot of people in Burlington have waited a lot longer."


afichera@philly.com

856-779-3917 @AJFichera

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