Yulee chicken fans to eat more free food

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on July 9, 2004.

Robert Davis probably wasn't at his best Thursday morning.

His eyes drooping, his legs shuffling slightly as he walked, the 19-year-old tossing himself into a chair as though he might never leave it: "I'm strung out on caffeine and no sleep," he said.

Still, the night he spent lounging in front of Yulee's newest attraction was worth it.

"It's a bonus," he said. "I love Chick-fil-A. And I'm tired of eating Wendy's."

For the next year, he won't have to.

At 6 a.m. Thursday, Davis and 99 other members of the throngs assembled outside Yulee's new Chick-fil-A received coupons for 52 free combo meals, a bounty designed to last a year.

Good idea, figured Charlie McIntyre, a Florida Community College at Jacksonville student who, with several friends, had shown up at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday to claim the first spots in line, eventually sitting in the parking lot for more than 20 hours.

Their reason for showing up was simple: "College students don't have money," McIntyre said. "We like free food."

College students -- or at least college-aged folks -- made up a large portion of the 150 or so people hanging out, although there was a strong showing of kids, seniors and parents. Some brought tents, others lawn chairs; many showed up with nothing but blankets, eventually clearing out the nearby Wal-Mart's camping section in a search for shelter from the rain.

The gathering featured a cross section of area residents, from guys wearing only cutoffs and tattoos to grandparents who saw the sleepover as family bonding time, to 11-year-olds who, one confided, thought "four o'clock is kinda boring."

Some of the adults wiled away the waning nighttime hours by discussing -- at times voraciously -- where, exactly, the restaurant is located. Despite its Yulee postal address, the opening ceremonies featured the mayor of Fernandina Beach, and T-shirts commemorating the event proclaimed it to be on Amelia Island, an assertion roundly rejected by those in line.

Those from the neighborhood were proud that the new restaurant has been located in the rapidly growing area that has sprung up on Florida A1A, with car dealerships and a Wal-Mart cropping up after several more pastoral miles of highway.

"This is the biggest thing to happen in Yulee apart from the Super Wal-Mart," said Douglas Blocker, one of the last in line for the year's worth of coupons.

The entire area has rushed to embrace the restaurant, one of the first chains to not simply cluster around the highway.

"It's been very well received by the community -- by all of Nassau County, to tell the truth," said Regina Duncan, president of the local chamber of commerce. "It's a very popular restaurant. We've been fielding calls for quite a while about when it will open. It's filling a need."

Less-heated diversions made up the bulk of the evening's entertainment, including a midnight ice cream party hosted by Chick-fil-A president and Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy, a spate of (stuffed) cow tossing and a talent show featuring an a capella tribute to Kurt Cobain and a hula hoop artist, among others.

Notwithstanding the diversity of the group, their reasons for being there fell into two camps: Many were lured by the food, like Lee Thompson, who found out about the event while driving home from work.

"I was driving down A1A at 90 miles an hour and saw all the tents," he said. "I swung around in a ditch and pulled in and asked what was going on."

When told about the giveaway, he dashed home for a tent, returning in 10 minutes to claim spot No. 94. "It's free chicken, man," he said.

Others showed up because they appreciate Chick-fil-A as an organization, not just a restaurant.

"I got a new perspective on Chick-fil-A," said Ed Almers, who appreciated the company executives talking about their personal values and religious beliefs. "They've got good values and they value honesty. We need more companies like this."

Forging such connections with its customers has proven a successful strategy for the Atlanta-based chain, which has seen record-breaking sales during the past several years.

"Chick-fil-A has a very good reputation with consumers. It's one of the highest-rated chains out there," said Jeff Davis, executive vice president of Sandelman & Associates, a marketing research firm that advises restaurants. "There's a bond that they have with their customers. There's a certain mystique that goes with Chick-fil-A."

If not a mystique, at least a fondness for their sandwiches.

Shirley Ivey, for example, showed up about 6 a.m. Thursday, not so much hoping to get free coupons as to get breakfast.

"I wanted to use the drive-through," she said. "We're thrilled to have it here. It's a great place to eat on the way to work."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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