Chick-fil-A Phenomenon Camps Out in Palm Coast: If Grateful Dead Fans Loved Chikin
FlaglerLive | March 18, 2015
It was an odd sight. Tents. Tents and campers, in what would normally be the parking lot and drive-through of a fast-food restaurant. That was the scene at Palm Coast’s new Chick-fil-A restaurant along Palm Coast Parkway today, where Perkins used to be. It’s the scene until dawn Thursday morning, when the store will open its doors in earnest and those campers will get their gift of free meals and notch another grand opening conquest.
This one goes beyond the usual ribbon-cutting.
Chick-fil-A is often associated with its founder’s religious fervor—the closed-on-Sunday rule, the emphasis on Christianity, the Cathy family’s opposition to gay marriage—but it’s a different sort of religious fervor that prevails at grand openings. The fervent following of a brand that somehow has come to represent a club, if not a cult, helping to power the company to 46 straight years of growth.
To the habitués of Chick-fil-A openings, Libby and Jake Knupp are immediately recognizable, immediately referred to only by their first names, usually as a single unit: it’s always Libby and Jake. He’s wearing his blue Chick-fil-A t-shirt and a hat with a puppet-like cow replicating the company’s trademark black-spotted Holstein cow pinned to the front (the cow that begs you to “eat more chickin” on billboards across the land). She’s wearing a cow-pinned hat too, but also sporting home-made earrings featuring the pleading cow. She puts on a holsteinish poncho that looks as if she’s skinned a cow, and to top it off a face mask of the cow, with a red heart for a mouth. Inexplicably, Chick-fil-A has yet to pay her a multi-figure commission. Not just for her salesmanship. She has vivacity to spare. (When she spells her Knupp name to a reporter, she adds helpfully, “it’s like can you pee pee. I do way too much.” That’s about the extent of anything near profane you might hear on Chick-fil-A territory.)
Libby and Jake
Libby and Jake are the royalty of Chick-fil-A openings. This is their 111th. You read right. One hundred and eleventh. She’s 74. Jake is 76. They started going to these things in 2007. They were at one of the early grand openings in Ohio, the very same one that franchise owner Glenn Efford opened there—the same Glenn Efford who now owns the Palm Coast Chickfil-A that opens its doors Thursday morning at 6 a.m.“Libby and Jake, they came to my grand opening in Ohio eight years ago, and it was like, there’s Libby and Jake,” Efford said today, a few feet from their tent. “It’s really a family. We talk about a cult. I’ve seen articles where it says, you know, the cult of Chick-fil-A and all that stuff, but I like to think of it as just a family. Gosh, they came in, they recognized my daughter from eight years ago, who’s now grown and married and everything, and just really neat. Just a great, crazy environment.”
Libby and Jake got to Palm Coast at 2:30 this morning, having left Gulf Port at 11:30 last night. They made it: they won their raffle, giving them plenty of free food. But that’s not what they’re in it for. They’re in it because they’re unabashed Chick-fil-A groupies. This is their life. They’re what Grateful Dead fans would look like if they were chicken fans. And they’re Chick-fil-A’s best assets.
“It started out as the coupons,” Libby says. “I am a coupon person. I do not think you can watch your dollars close enough. But years ago we started in July of ’07. It’s the friendships.” Today, she says there were at least 25 people in the spread of tents in front of Palm Coast’s Chick-fil-A she’d gotten to know at other openings across the country: the company’s 1,800 stores is in 40 states and the District of Columbia, and she’s been to openings in just about every one of those states.
To understand what these openings are about, you have to understand what drives Libby and Jake to them.
The Chick-fil-A House Rules
Impressions have it that the first 100 people at a Chick-fil-A opening get to have a year’s worth of the restaurant’s food, free, and that those openings get swamped by local residents turning out for the give-away. That’s not exactly it. It’s actually a raffle. You have to get there 24 hours before the grand opening. Whether you’re among 100 or 300 people (the range at those openings), a raffle takes place, and 100 people are chosen as the lucky ones who’ll get the big gift, which is actually 52 free but specific meals, which can be had any time over the following 52 weeks, or 52 days, or 52 hours, if you’re so inclined. (The meal itself is the #1 offering on Chick-fil-A’s menu, the classic Chick-fil-A sandwich, coleslaw and fries and a drink, about $6 worth, or a little over $300.)Most of those who go to the grand openings are not local. On Wednesday, fewer than 20—and possibly no more than 10—of the people camped out in front of the restaurant were from Palm Coast or Flagler. The campers are in a quite controlled environment: they may not step out of the proscribed zone for 24 hours from 6 a.m. Wednesday to 6 a.m. Thursday, even though they know they’ve been chosen for the big prize. The 24-hour test is a test of their loyalty.
Besides, the restaurant is feeding them, free, for those 24 hours, and with every meal, the restaurant staff, more than 80 employees at the Palm Coast location, are getting their pre-opening training. It’s a great deal for the chosen 100, and the six or seven alternates among them hoping that one of the 100 will drop out (a few had today), although not as good a deal for local restaurants and hotels, who will not see the out-of-towners’ business until maybe after the opening.
The very first grand opening for Libby and Jake was in Culpepper, Va., “and without a doubt,” Libby says, “it was the loveliest. It was an experience to behold. The temperature was like 110 with air quality index, they had misters, the spray things, they had water, they had fans, I mean, it was a camp-out.” As it is in Palm Coast, she goes on. “We have water, and tea, sweet and unsweet over there, all day until way up in the night. They feed us all day, and then, you know the 52 coupons.” Well, not coupons anymore: those were transferable. Now the company issues check-card like plastic, one card for the whole year, which makes it more difficult to share.
End of a Grand Opening Era
The change Libby minds the most, though, is one kicking in on April 1. Starting then, and with every grand opening thereafter, those eligible for such raffles must live within a 25-mile radius of the new store. That will eliminate just about all the groupies, and end Libby’s and Jake’s journeys.
“I don’t like it. At all,” Libby says. “They have no idea the advertising we do for them. Do you know, we are never seen without a Chick-fil-A cup.” Besides, they think the 25-mile radius thing won’t work. “We heard of a grand opening where one person showed up, local,” Libby said of one such try-out. “They need people to have a grand opening.”
The company doesn’t deny that it faces a challenge with the 25-mile rule, and that a dearth of people showed up at piloted versions.“We tested it last year,” Tiffany Simmons, a company spokesperson who was at the Palm Coast opening, said. “What we were trying to do is a lot of the operators, the owner-operators, really wanted to connect with their community. That’s a big portion of when they come into the area, they want to connect their community and the people who’ll actually be frequenting their stores. So with changing it to the limited zip codes it gives them the opportunity to get to know who’s in their neighborhood.”
Where it’s been tried, Simmons said, it took a while for the people to come out, but even where the number didn’t match the pre-opening 100, every patron up to the first 100 who walked up to the counter on the actual opening morning got the gift card. And the company’s marketing so far, decade after decade, has not failed it.
For Libby and Jake, it’s quite literally the end of the road. Next week they’ll be heading to Delray Beach. “That’s number 112, and that’ll be it, because it’s going to the zip codes,” Libby says.
Fellow-travelers Jerry and Velma Boswell of New Bern, N.C., who winter in a motorhome in Wildwood, have crossed paths with Libby and Jake so often at openings that today they were sharing their tent, Velma with her electric keyboard, Jerry with his mandolin. She’s been to about 28 of these openings. This is Jerry’s 49th. “I’ve done a lot of them on my motorcycle,” he says. “I’ve been all the way from Baltimore, Maryland, to Houston, Texas.” He loves the meals, loves to play, “but I enjoy the fellowship,” he says.
Efford, the franchise owner, credits the organized setting. “There’s a right way to do things and then there’s a haphazard way to do things,” he says. “The cities that we open up in, they want events to be organized. They prefer not to have a haphazard type of event. And Chick-fil-A really runs this well. It started out sort of haphazard, people just lining up. This is my second grand opening. When I first opened in Ohio, it wasn’t nearly as organized.”
Matters of Christianity
Diane Noble of Orlando was whiling away the late morning with Vickie Ruso. It was Noble’s ninth opening. She’d left Orlando at 3:30 this morning to make it to Palm Coast. It’s Ruso’s 25th.
“You meet people, you get to get away from society and be in your little cocoon,” Noble says. At half the openings she’s been to, Dan Cathy shows up. He’s the Chick-fil-A owner and son of the late founder, S. Truett Cathy, at whose funeral in Jonesboro, Ga., in September thousands of fans showed up. The older Cathy had started his very first restaurant in an Atlanta suburb in 1946. He died one of the richest men in the country, with a fortune valued at $6 billion.
The younger Cathy likes to be approachable and hip with his fans. “He tells you the progress of the company, what they’re doing,” Noble says, “and he usually brings his Bible or quote about the scriptures or something, this and that. He has a bugle and at 5:30 in the morning he does the roll call,” Reveille, that is. “That’ll definitely wake you up if you’re not awake.”
They’re all woken up before 6, they line up in increments of 25, and then they go into the restaurant to the applause and pot-banging cheers of the staff, to receive their gift.
“He doesn’t Bible-beat you,” Noble says, “as you know he stood up, you know, about the gay thing, but it only made his business bigger, actually. He’s not against them.”
“It’s his personal belief,” Ruso says.
“Being a Christian myself,” Noble says, “I agree, a lot of people, that’s the thing, is they think we hate homosexual people. The Bible says God loves the sinner and hates the sin, and whether you were living with a man and you’re not married to him, that’s wrong too, you know, or a pedophile, or pornography or whatever, it’s basically all sexual sin.”“But I think he’s entitled to his opinion, or his belief,” Ruso says. She’s been going to openings “mainly because it’s fun, mainly because it saves me a lot of money. It’s just a great deal. Why would you not do it? But the first one I did was in 2007. I don’t do it gung ho. It’s just every once in a while, if there’s one close to me, I’ll do it.” She adds: “It’s a good, Christian atmosphere,” Ruso says. “Nice and clean and healthy, family oriented, and the people at Chick fil-A treat you like you’re a queen, they’ll do anything for you. That, I like. Their customer service is outstanding.”
A few years ago the company was the target of withering criticism when it was revealed that the Trued family, who are Baptists, had given millions of dollars in donations to organizations battling same-sex marriage. The younger Trued spoke openly of the company supporting “the biblical definition of the family unit.” Just as clearly: the small population of tent city is almost all white, reflecting the demographic stronghold that has been a mainstay of the company’s base.
To Efford in Palm Coast, it’s rather simple. “I love people. I don’t care whether you’re black, white, gay, whatever,” he said. “There’s no sign on the door that says we only respect certain people. We respect everybody, and I love and honor everybody. Everybody is allowed to have opinions. I guess maybe I’m not opinionated, but I get touched by people and their generosity and their care and their compassion and their love, so for me I can’t really comment on other people’s opinions. I just know that our door is wide open for everybody who wants to come and enjoy some great food and great service.” That, he says, “absolutely” goes for patrons and employees.
The Palm Coast Restaurant’s Economics
The store has hired more than 80 people and may hire more “based on the level of activity,” Efford said. It uses all local contractors and vendors for produce, cleaning services and landscaping. The majority of the employees are part-timers, with well over a third full time, Efford says. A lot of high school students work the evening shifts. “It’s one of the things I really like doing is providing a good, respectful workplace for young people,” the store owner says. “We really try to mentor them and coach them and teach them in the ways of service, which quite often is lacking these days.” After working a certain number of hours, every high school student qualifies for a $1,000 scholarship, which a candidate can earn by enrolling in college, have a strong work ethic, show leadership and be involved at school and the community.
Entry-level workers start at minimum wage and are on a 30-day probationary period. “Then I pay them for value,” Efford said. “If you do your job well, you learn to execute the vision for the restaurant, you won’t be making minimum wage because typically hire minimum wage employees. I want them to understand the value between hard work and doing a job well and compensation. I told them all the same thing, I said, if you’re making minimum wage after you’ve been here a month, you’ve got to ask yourself a question: why? And if you don’t know why, then you need to come and talk to one of the managers.”Part-timers don’t have benefits but full-timers have the option of health benefits, as required of companies with a certain number of employees. “A lot of the full-time people,” Efford said, “they’re not the primary earners in their families, so they have benefits with other people, in that case they’re really more interested in having a good wage so they have more disposable income.”
He spoke as he stood outside the restaurant, surveying the scene: children and adolescents playing ball to one side, the small village of tents sprawled along the parking lot, a few dozen people having lunch inside (and having their wrist-bands checked in, to make sure no one has checked out).
Lounging in a reddish tent nearby is a trio—Shelley Ivanovich, 23, and her husband Roger, 23, along with Chris Ivanovich, 21. Roger didn’t seem particularly ecstatic about being there. “I don’t have much of a story. My wife dragged me here,” he says affably. He’s the sort of man one might call a difficult interview: a man of few words, at least regarding something he was not dancing about. “It’s whatever. It’s fine. No feelings towards it.” He’d driven all night from Clearwater, with the other Ivanoviches sleeping. But he does say assertively: “Who doesn’t like chicken?”
Chris has a relatively unique mission: he auctions off the Chick-fil-A credit card on E-Bay. Well, he’s done it once so far. It sold quickly. He’s held on to his second card. This is his third camp-out, but he’s one of the six people who didn’t make it in, except as an alternate. Shelley’s done it twice before, won the raffle once, making this her second success, though she’d rather it was a first-come, first-served sort of contest, not a raffle.
Blaine Wheeler, executive director of YMCA Camp Wynona in DeLeon Springs—which is part of the Volusia Flagler YMCA network—had gone to one opening in Lake City two years ago, and has been to five since, winning entry to four. “I love Chick-fil-A, it’s a year’s worth of Chick-fil-A, it definitely helps,” he says. “It’s fun, and it’s not like you have to go and camp out and you’re miserable or whatever. They do all kinds of fun things. The people are so neat, that you meet. I’ve met people from all over the country that I see quite often. That’s what’s neat about it.”
Bedford Falls in Palm Coast
But he, too, has seen the grand openings change character. “I don’t like the changes, I didn’t like the changes last year when they went to the cards, because I used to give out a lot of my cards to people as gifts and the people that needed it and things like that. You can’t do that anymore,” Wheeler says. “A lot of us don’t do it for ourselves, we do it to give to others. I worked at a Christian organization that helped those in need. I had volunteers I wanted to give them to and I wanted to be able to give them to clients from time to time. We lost that ability, and a good number of us did that a lot, gave it away to those in need and to other people as gifts for people to use that could use it better. But I understand the reasoning for it as well.”“The zip code rule, if it’s going to get people in the zip codes to come and do it, it’s great. But from what I’ve heard, that doesn’t always happen. Just like here, out of probably 100 people, there’s probably less than 20 that are within [the 25 mile limit]. Most of them have come from way away, or they’re coming through on spring break or something like that. If it’s going to lessen what it does, it’s not fun.”
Efford has his own story. “This is a bit of a reunion for me,” he says, “because my brother operates a store in St. Augustine, and we’ve just been very close over the years and we’ve never really lived close to each other for 20-some odd years, and now we’re back together and I’m just very grateful and happy that we’ll be near each other.”
Then he asks whether he could make one message clear above all others: “The welcoming, cooperative, friendly nature of this area, Flagler County and Palm Coast, has been off the chart for me,” Efford said. “I’ve never felt so welcome. It’s just indescribable, and has made me so happy. I know that they wanted Chick-fil-A here a very long time, but just the welcoming nature of everybody, it’s just incredible. It’s just incredible.”
He concludes: “I’m a big ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ fan, and I just believe those positive things that you can do for your community will really be the measure of the success of your business and you as a human, so for me, this is just such a great opportunity to bring that to Palm Coast and be involved with the schools and the churches, the chamber.”