People are Camping Outside DC’s First Chick-fil-A Before Opening Day

Those who sleep on the sidewalk in Columbia Heights will win a year of free meals.

People arrived at 5:30 am on Tuesday to camp out before Chick-fil-A's first DC opening on Wednesday.

DC’s first stand-alone Chick-fil-A opens in Columbia Heights tomorrow, but before the public is served, 100 people are expected to spend 24 hours on the sidewalk outside the restaurant for a year’s-worth of free meals.

The gathering is part of the Atlanta-based chain’s First 100 promotion, held at every shop opening for the past 12 years. The first 100 customers receive one free combo—a #1 chicken sandwich, waffle fries, and a drink—per week for a year, totaling 52 meals. The catch: the line begins the day before the grand opening, and only those who endure the full 24 hours win the prize.

A dozen people were already camped out when we arrived at the Columbia Heights store at 6:30 AM. Earlier, a much larger crowd formed who hadn’t read the fine print, expecting to get their reward for merely being the first in line. All left when it was made clear that they had to stay. The remaining group came prepared for the long haul, carrying folding chairs and blankets, backpacks full of snacks and water, laptops and books. One man brought a Rubik’s Cube. Another, a Bible.

“My friends think I’m crazy,” said Laura Bibbs, the second in line. “I’ve been waiting for this moment forever. I found my Chick-fil-A soulmate,” she said, gesturing to Jeff Cousins, the first in line. Cousins, a federal government employee, says he arrived extra-early, at 12:45 AM.

“I’m a Washingtonian, and my wife is from Virginia,” said Cousins. “All my 30 years of marriage I’ve been a Chick-fil-A fan. I just fell in love with it the first time I went.”

Most of the people in line asked to remain anonymous, not wanting to tip off employers. One younger man with a laptop claimed he was “working remotely,” while another, an engineer who asked to be called Josh, said the experience is an opportunity to step back.

“This is really nice,” said Josh, who lives on Capitol Hill. “All the hustle and bustle of DC, it’s nice to slow down life for awhile.”

Josh is a First 100 veteran, having attended four others. In previous years people like Josh would travel hours for a Chick-fil-A opening, but the chain recently changed their system. In an effort to make the event a “community friendly party,” only customers within a local zip code are eligible for the giveaway. Previously Josh traveled to suburban openings, where fans turn the new restaurant’s parking lot into a concrete campground, carting tents, grills, and even inflatable pools in the summer.

The First 100 are given wristbands upon arrival and a set boundary for their movement, which includes trips inside the Chick-fil-A to use the bathroom or charge their phones. Random checks are performed, and if someone isn’t found within the designated area, they’re immediately disqualified. Chick-fil-A staff occasionally emerge from the restaurant, bringing Hot Hands warmers or coffee to fight off the morning chill. Spokeswoman Tiffany Simmons says employees provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as sporadic entertainment. The 70-seat restaurant isn’t large enough to fit the First 100 overnight, but staff will come out to play games. Prizes like a gallon of lemonade or cookies are rewarded for rolling an Oreo from your forehead into your mouth, or sticking the most corn balls on someone wearing a whip cream-covered shower cap.

“I came because I wanted an experience,” said one Capitol Hill intern, who declined to give her name. “When else are you going to do something like this?”

Simmons says that around 5:30 on Wednesday morning someone from the team will go out and play wakeup music (the traditional trumpet player couldn’t make it), and receive a Chick-fil-A t-shirt and hat. The First 100 will march into the restaurant to the tune of banging pots and pans from the staff, and march out with their digital card for 52 free meals. Though the morning line was short, she estimates that the 100 person quota will be met towards the end of the day, as people begin to leave work and the word spreads.

“People say, ‘I’m not here for the chicken anymore. I’m here for the camaraderie’,” said Simmons. “A lot of people come to us to spend time with their family, to recharge. A lot of people come to us just to sleep.”

We’ll update this post as the opening continues.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.