In Chick-fil-A groupie circles, Bernie J is a living legend.
The White Marsh, Md. man and his wife, Theresa, have an unusual hobby - they love to attend Chick-fil-A restaurant grand openings. Bernie has been to at least 67 grand openings since 2008, but he's lost count. “It could be 68,” he said as he sat in the parking lot of the new Rehoboth Beach restaurant.
Bernie is so devoted to everything Chick-fil-A, the company made him an honorary ambassador who assists people during opening events. “When I first found out they were closed on Sunday, that hit a home run with me,” said the retired U.S. Marine. He's been going to grand openings ever since.
He was one of more than 100 people camped out on the Chick-fil-A parking lot along Route 1. More than 150 people turned out at 6 a.m., May 22, to enter their names in a raffle for the coveted first 100 customers list. The top 100 customers received 52 coupons for free food worth about $300 a person.
The only catch is that they had to camp out for 24 hours until the restaurant opened at 6 a.m., May 23. That meant they couldn't leave the designated camping area. The restaurant was open for pit stops, and restaurant staff provided free meals.
Calling a Chick-fil-A a typical grand opening with a ribbon cutting and dignitaries is like calling Disney World just a theme park. The grand openings are carefully orchestrated happenings that have attracted a cult following. Some go to the extreme: A retired Florida couple, who missed the Rehoboth Beach opening due to the husband's knee surgery, have attended nearly 100 openings.
There is a page on the company's website devoted to the First 100 operation.
In the mini-tent city, people spent the day napping in their tents, reading, talking with one another, playing board games and playing baseball, four-square, lacrosse and soccer. Throughout the day and into the night, Chick-fil-A staff mingled with campers to talk about their common interest - waffle fries and chicken sandwiches.
Lindsay Ables, a Chick-fil-A public relations person, said the grand opening events attract groupies of all ages. “We were doing one in Colorado in April with 12 inches of snow on the ground, and we still had people show up,” she said.
About half of the people attending the event were local and half were from out of state.
At the magic hour of 6 a.m., May 23, amid the clamor of cowbells, the first customers were allowed in the restaurant to receive their coupons. Alternates with numbers above 100 were also permitted to camp out just in case someone dropped out. Bernie was No. 102.
Bernie worked the large crowd throughout the day as people waited for the official grand opening. “I've met a lot of nice Christian people and children,” he said.
He hasn't had to spend much money on food, either, as the recipient of hundreds of coupons that he freely shares with people.
After 25 years as a Marine, Bernie said he would never camp out again. Little did he know he would end up camping out in Chick-fil-A parking lots.
Bernie is not alone in his love of Chick-fil-A. Bethanne and John Marlowe of Georgetown spent their ninth wedding anniversary camping out on the asphalt of the Chick-fil-A parking lot.
It must have been kismet: Bethanne received the coveted No. 1 wrist band as the first person to receive her free-food coupons. Her husband was 17th on the list. “I felt like I was on the Price is Right,” Bethanne said.
“There is no way she would do that,” Josh said about the idea of camping out in the parking lot. “But it was what she wanted to do.”
“Hey, we are occupying Chick-fil-A,” he said with a laugh.
Brandon Swann of White Marsh, Md., seemed at ease as he sat in a camp chair; it was his fifth grand opening. “It's a day away from work where you are really forced to relax,” he said. He was excited that his number was nine.
“Why not be here,” said Daniel Spruill of Newark. “We like to camp, and we can get free meals.”
“If the whole world was like Chick-fil-A, we would have no problems,” Bernie said. He and his wife are already planning to attend a grand opening in Union, N.J. There are 19 openings scheduled until July 11.
Chick-fil-A is one the largest family-owned companies in the country, with more than 1,700 locations in 39 states and Washington, D.C. There are more than 1,000 stand-alone restaurants like the Rehoboth Beach location.
The company was founded by Truett Cathy in the early 1960s with the first mall restaurant opening in 1967. Cathy's original chicken restaurant, Dwarf Grill, opened in 1946 in Hapeville, Ga. He is credited with inventing the white-meat chicken sandwich.