Travelers on Rockford Street in Mount Airy were greeted by an unusual sight Wednesday morning: a sea of tents filling the parking lot of a new restaurant which had been empty only hours before.
No, this wasn’t due to an influx of political refugees or even a local version of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but the grand opening of a new Chick-fil-A restaurant.
Lured by the chance to be one of its first 100 customers and win a Chick-fil-A sandwich meal per week for a year, people from all over began showing up bright and early Wednesday. That was a requirement in order to remain at the restaurant for 24 hours ahead of the official opening this morning.
In a short time a veritable tent city was in place at the site and attracted double-takes from passersby throughout the day.
Many of those assembled were veterans of previous Chick-fil-A grand openings elsewhere, who journey from place to place for the free-food opportunity.
“There’s a lot of people that go wherever they are,” said Ken Koch of Asheboro, one of about 200 people who had gathered in the lot Wednesday morning.
“I’ve been to two other ones,” added Koch, who arrived in Mount Airy at 6 a.m. Wednesday and pitched a tent along with others making the trip. A woman in the group, who had attended numerous grand openings, said that while the turnout Wednesday in Mount Airy was impressive, it has been even greater at some locations.
Others there had come from additional communities in North Carolina as well as out of state.
“I saw two vehicles that had license plates from Pennsylvania,” Koch reported.
Tents and canopies of all sizes and colors were jammed into the Chick-fil-A parking lot Wednesday along with other camping gear. The only visual element that distinguished the site from the campground of a fiddlers convention or other music festival, for example, was a topiary in the shape of a cow highlighting the “Eat Mor Chikin” campaign of the fast-food chain.
The topiary was almost obscured by the array of tents, but stood out nonetheless.
Most of those gathered seemed content to while away the time relaxing in deck chairs, conversing with their temporary neighbors, catching some rays on a pleasant day or enjoying free coffee courtesy of the restaurant. Many were retirees, although younger couples and college-age folks were spotted in the crowd as well.
It also included some locals, including Bill Joe Woodruff, a former city fire chief and commissioner. Woodruff explained that he was not drawn there by the opportunity to win free food but just to see what was happening, and indicated he would be hard-pressed to recall any similar spectacle in Mount Airy.
Under Chick-fil-A policy, if more than 100 adults show up between the required times of 5:30 a.m. to 6 a.m. the day before a grand opening, a raffle is then held to select the first 100. Those winners each receive a number, which was designated by wristbands worn by participants Wednesday.
Another 10 are picked as alternates in case someone has to leave, with those individuals and the 100 then invited to remain at the restaurant for the 24-hour period leading to the opening.
One older man wearing wristband No. 43, a veteran of Chick-fil-A grand openings who didn’t give his name or address — saying only that he was “from down the road a ways” — said they have evolved into well-organized gatherings despite large turnouts.
He added that based on past experience, the parking lot would be devoid of the tents this morning as part of a smooth process which would leave no evidence of an encampment having occurred there.
City police also said Wednesday afternoon that they were impressed with the organized manner in which the gathering had been handled by the company, despite the crowds, increased traffic and parking demands.
“We haven’t had any complaints whatsoever,” said Capt. Richard Lowe of the Mount Airy Police Department.
Lowe said Chick-fil-A had hired off-duty officers as security personnel, and that city police would “assist any way we can.”
“We are continuing to monitor the traffic over there,” Capt. Alan Freeman said, also reporting an orderly situation so far.
“We’ll keep on monitoring it, especially throughout the night.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.