JACKSONVILLE — Is the promise of free chicken sandwiches for a year enough to entice a person to camp out for 12 hours in a parking lot?
It is for Janet Smith.
“It’s free food and a fun party,” Smith said with a shrug.
Jacksonville’s new Chick-fil-A kicked off its era of chicken cooking and sandwich slinging Wednesday night with a customer camp-out. Almost 100 chicken lovers — those who were in line at 5:30 p.m. — were selected to survive the night and receive a card redeemable for 52 chicken sandwich combos, which include an original sandwich, waffle fries and a drink, a $325 value.
The camp-out was held ahead of the official opening of the new location of the restaurant Thursday at 6 a.m., where campers would receive their prize.
Smith, who came prepared Wednesday night for a night of camping with her two kids, Nathaniel and Arden, is no stranger to the long wait for free chicken.
“This is about my 30th grand opening,” Smith said. “We’ve been to Atlanta, Birmingham, everywhere.”
Several games and activities were planned for the early evening, such as a lip sync battle, to help campers pass the time until they tired out.
Jacksonville State University student Dylan McCareeth had a strategy for the night.
“I only got three hours of sleep last night, so I’m hoping that helps me sleep some,” McCareeth said. “I’ve got some some snacks and drinks, and I’m just going to hope I can sleep through it.”
The camp-out for the first 100 customers has become a staple at new Chick-fil-A openings for the last 15 years.
Brent Cunningham, interim head of Jacksonville State University’s management and marketing department, said the promotion works for the restaurant because of the loyalty of its customers.
“Chick-fil-A has very high customer loyalty,” Cunningham said. “They’ve got brand loyalty like Apple does for computers. People see them taking care of their customers, and they feel good about buying.”
Cunningham said such promotional giveaways usually connect with the public more than just the product they’ll win.
“People that have a job would most likely earn more money working at their jobs for the day than the value of the sandwiches,” Cunningham said. “It’s more about the experience, for people to say ‘I did that.’”
For example, a large turnout greeted Chicken Salad Chick at the Oxford Exchange when the restaurant promised chicken salad for a year to its first 150 guests on opening day in June.
While promotions are often wholesome celebrations, Cunningham said problems sometimes occur.
“There are risks involved, but for the most part, the community understands these risks,” Cunningham said. “Chick-fil-A does this at all their grand openings. They’ve weighed the risks and see that it’s not an issue. The publicity they get is worth any lawsuit that could happen.”
Jason Soriano, operator of the newest Jacksonville restaurant, was on hand Wednesday night to witness the turnout for his new town.
“My wife and I have always wanted to live in a small college town,” Soriano said. “We absolutely fell in love with the town. Everyone has been super nice and welcoming.”
Ahead of Thursday's opening of the restaurant, Jacksonville police Chief Marcus Wood said precautions are being taken in anticipation of heavy traffic.
“We’re not blocking off 21, but we are blocking off Vann Street that runs in between Cookout and Chick-fil-A,” Wood said Wednesday.
Wood said no left turns would be allowed onto Vann Street or into the Chick-fil-A parking lot for drivers coming southbound on Alabama 21.
“We don’t want people getting rear-ended by coming around the square and slowing down all of a sudden trying to turn left,” Wood said.