BY THE NUMBERS
100 - people who win free meals
52 - meals each person wins
$31,200 - estimated cost for 5,200 meals
5 - Chick-fil-A grand openings across the U.S. today
24 - hours participants must camp out to win
Kids, teenagers and adults huddled together in folding lawn chairs, sipping hot drinks and cuddling under blankets in the parking lot of the new Chick-fil-A on Brainerd Road Wednesday. From one-man hovels to sprawling three-room mansions, more than 50 tents were crammed into the lot.
Some people watched movies on hand-held tablets, others typed away on laptops or played card games with gloved fingers, some chatted quietly with friends. And every five or 10 minutes, a plane headed for the Chattanooga airport would go roaring by, low in the sky.
Each person shared a common goal: to win a year's supply of Chick-fil-A meals.
"I wouldn't do this for McDonald's," Tyler Poschel, a 27-year-old from Nashville said. "Actually I wouldn't go to any other fast food restaurant for an opening. I just like Chick-fil-A."
Every time a new store opens, Chick-fil-A offers 52 free meals to up to 100 people who chose to camp out in the parking lot for 24 hours without leaving.
The new restaurant on Brainerd Road officially opens at 6 a.m. today. To earn the free meals, the 100 people had to stay on the property from 6 a.m. Wednesday to 6 a.m. this morning.
Poschel decided to give the event a try this year because he wanted to spend time with his old college roommate, Birmingham, Ala., native Brett Long. The pair graduated from Mississippi State University in 2007, and the camp out at the Brainerd Chick-fil-A was Long's sixth.
He's spent 24 hours at five other Chick-fil-A parking lots across Alabama and Mississippi in the last two years.
"It's between $250 and $300 worth of food," he said, adding that it's a slow time of year for his landscaping business. "I like having the day off and taking time to relax and get away from things."
Giving away 5,200 free meals at about $6 a meal will set Chick-fil-A back by about $31,000. But it's a good investment, said Krisitin Chaillou, a Chick-fil-A grand opening event planner.
"It creates an emotional connection with our guests," she said. "It's a tie to the community. Many campers will share their coupons with others and tell them about the first 100."
The day also gives rookie Chick-fil-A employees one last chance to train. The restaurant serves the campers three free meals while they wait.
Troy Curry, 20, left Atlanta with his girlfriend at 1:30 a.m. for his first grand opening camp out. He was one of the first to arrive at Chick-fil-A, pulling in around 4:30 a.m.
"I like the way it brings people together," he said. "Chick-fil-A is holding something that people of all sizes and races can do together."
For Payton Stallings, 19, Wednesday's camp out was her second. She comes from a family of six and said they share the coupons. Last time, it took her family about six months to use the 52 free meals.
But she added it's more about the experience than the money.
"It's so much fun to come out here," she said. "It's the experience. But the coupons are really nice, too."
Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...