‘A huge party’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 9, 2005

Suffolk’s first Chick-Fil-A welcomes customers

By Jason Norman

Long before its doors ever opened in the wee hours of Thursday, Suffolk’s first Chick-Fil-A was established as one of the city’s most happenin’ places.

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Nearly two full days before the Main Street shop opened, eager chicken chompers started lining up outside. The first 100 customers would get one free meal a week for the next year, and it was an offer too good to pass up.

As Wednesday morning and afternoon passed by, the parking lot outside started to fill with cars and customers. Crowds formed, and people who had never met shared their love for the breaded bird in a sort of impromptu support groups.

By nightfall, the early January temperature started to drop. But everyone knew it was coming; several visitors propped up tents and climbed inside for a catnap, while other crowded around heaters.

&uot;I got here about 9:30 p.m.,&uot; said Alfreda Hale, who at number 97 just made it to the free meal group. &uot;I had on my bedroom slippers. My husband had to bring me a chair, a sweater, everything. I learned to play dominoes!&uot;

That was one activity that the restaurant provided its pre-opening guests. Music played, dancers did the Electric Slide across the lot, and store employees brought out appetizing breakfast meals to keep everyone going.

Every two hours, the hungry had to work a little harder; eating contests were held.

&uot;We knelt down on a plastic bag, and put our hands behind our back,&uot; said Clark Parham, number 23. &uot;We had to open an eight-pack with our mouths and eat all the food. Then we had to jump up and scream (company slogan) ‘Eat More Chicken!’&uot;

Putting her Marymount University education to work, Jessica Dodson calculated that one free meal a week could save her upwards of $300 next year.

&uot;I’m a poor college student, and we have a Chick-Fil-A at my school,&uot; she said. &uot;This will save me some money. Not only do we get free meals while we’re waiting, but this has been a huge party.&uot;

Just before the sun came up, store operator Nicki Digby prepared to welcome her first group of culinary customers.

&uot;All I can say is, ‘Wow!’&uot; she said, looking at the mass of people waiting to come in. &uot;This is amazing. The support that we’ve gotten has been great. Chick-Fil-A has been so welcomed. We’re going to become very involved, partnering with schools, churches and newspapers in the area. Us helping them grow will help us grow.&uot;

Digby and the rest of the employees crowded inside to the front of the store. Blasting the musical array of pots and pans through the air, they finally welcomed the group at 6:24 a.m. Several customers strode straight to the registers, having worked up an appetite staying up all night.

&uot;I’ll probably come tomorrow, or maybe this evening,&uot; said Betty Gilchrist, another one of the lucky 100. &uot;When I tasted the samples earlier tonight, they were very good. It was a great experience for me being out all night, because I’d never done that before.

&uot;This is a very nice place. It’s going to be a challenge for the other restaurants, because everyone’s going to be coming here now.&uot;