Even the rooster was still asleep at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday as people in sweat pants, hats and mittens gathered in the dark parking lot of Bellevue's new Chick-fil-A restaurant, more than 24 hours before its scheduled opening.
Bellevue Police Officer John Lowery, hired to keep order in case a crowd formed, chatted with the restaurant's fans, who showed up early hoping to be among the 100 people chosen to spend the day and night in the parking lot and then receive a year's worth of free meal coupons. The Atlanta chain is opening its first two stand-alone locations in Nebraska.
In short sleeves, Lowery defied both the freezing weather and the enthusiasm of the early birds. “I mean, are you kidding me? It's a good sandwich, but not that good.”
They were not kidding.
Several of the 41 people who were at the Bellevue location and the 47 at the Papillion store by the time the “First 100” event officially started at 6 a.m. said that once Nebraskans experience the sandwich and service, they'll understand why people were willing to sleep in a parking lot on Halloween just to be part of the opening day party.
“I'm a Chick-fil-A fiend,” said Nichole Small, 29, of Bellevue, who keeps what she called a Chick-fil-A shrine on her desk at Blue Cross Blue Shield. Her co-workers were not surprised when she requested the day off as soon as the event was scheduled.
Small grew up in South Carolina and moved here when her mother was stationed in the Air Force. “It reminds me of home,” she said.
An Offutt Air Force Base pilot, Matt Downing, 31, said he was pleased he was among the first 100 to arrive at the Papillion restaurant. He took a day of leave and erected a tent with another Offutt pilot.
After completing Air Force survival training this past summer, Downing said camping in a Papillion parking lot was “easy.'' He said he grew to love Chick-fil-A during training at a base in Mississippi.
The weather was supposed to warm to a high in the low 60s Wednesday afternoon and then cool to around 40 tonight as people sleep in tents in the parking lot, said AccuWeather meteorologist Eric Leister.
Restaurant owners said activities — including free meals, costume contests and pumpkin decorating — would help keep people warm and busy.
The restaurants — at 8710 S. 71st Plaza in Papillion and 2016 Cornhusker Road in Bellevue — also have set up stands and passed out free chicken sandwiches over the past week at area businesses and schools to introduce people to the brand.
While the Wednesday crowd was not as big as at some openings, where a raffle determines the 100 people who participate, there seemed to be a high concentration of locals, marketing officials said.
But there were a few people who travel from state to state for First 100 events.
Architect Ben Perry traveled to the Bellevue restaurant from Olathe, Kan., with his 7-year-old son, Joshua. Perry said he briefly worked for Chick-fil-A as a dining room host. Wednesday's was his eighth grand-opening event.
“It's one of those life-building experiences,” he said.
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