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Freezing for free food

Jefferson City resident Travis Roberts climbs out of his tent Wednesday morning as he prepares to spend the day waiting in line. He is a Mizzou student and said he’s been waiting for about 12 years for there to be a Chick-fil-A in Jefferson City so he wanted to be one of the “First 100.”

Jefferson City resident Travis Roberts climbs out of his tent Wednesday morning as he prepares to spend the day waiting in line. He is a Mizzou student and said he’s been waiting for about 12 years for there to be a Chick-fil-A in Jefferson City so he wanted to be one of the “First 100.” Photo by Julie Smith.

A city of tents lined the freshly painted parking lot Wednesday, as die-hard fans and those seeking free food waited out in the cold for the grand opening of Chick-fil-A in Jefferson City. The fast-food restaurant officially opened today at 6 a.m., but the first 100 people to be there by that time this morning were given coupons good for one free Chick-fil-A meal per week, for the next year.

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Mary Miller brings her children, Steve and Ashley Miller, at right, more blankets and a pair of battery-warmed socks to help keep them warm as they prepare to spend the next 20 hours in the cold on the parking lot at Chick-fil-A. Several dozen people braved Wednesday’s blustery, cold winds in order to earn a free meal.

People gathered starting as early at 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, hoping to secure their spot in the first 100 people. Those in attendance ranged from first-time campers to Chick-fil-A groupies. Kansas City metropolitan residents Nathan Smith and his wife, Sheri, along with Nathan’s father, George Smith, attended the event. Nathan was celebrating his sixth grand opening, George his eighth, and Sheri her third or fourth.

The family said after attending so many events, they start to recognize others who do the same. To pass the time, they usually play games and mingle with the other campers. This year, with temperatures around 30 during the day, and dropping down to around 2 degrees at night, Sheri said curling up in blankets was on her agenda. Tents, air mattresses and propane heaters were helping the family stay warm during the 24-hour stay. A DJ, karaoke, organized games with prizes and a tent with heaters were all a part of the celebration keeping people busy. At 10:30 p.m., after receiving a corporate dispensation because of the low temperatures, the restaurant made an exception to the standard First 100 rules and opened the restaurant, allowing those in line to stay inside and keep warm.

Jefferson City residents Phillip Rutledge and Mathew Markl took some time to pepper the volleyball with others in attendance. Both men asked off of work specifically to be a part of their first Chick-fil-A grand opening. Rutledge said he got to the 3407 Missouri Blvd. parking lot around 2 a.m., and waited for his friends coming in from St. Louis. The group brought six fleece blankets, four sleeping bags, a heater, “and a willingness to cuddle,” he joked.

Markl came alone, and said he really enjoyed the atmosphere and the people.

Wardsville resident Ron Rockwood was excited to be a part of the 24-hour event, and said he would still be there even if it weren’t for the free food.

“The food is incredible. The service is bar none,” Rockwood said. “They provide an incredible value for the product. They go out of their way to make sure you have what you want.”

For anyone who hasn’t tried Chick-fil-A, Rockwood encouraged, “The food is delicious, you’ll definitely be back.”

Chick-fil-A is opening under the direction of owner/operator Tom Van Voorn. A Missouri native, Van Voorn has been operating a Chick-fil-A in Georgia for the past 15 years.

“We’re thrilled to be here and excited to be a part of the community,” Van Voorn said.

In addition to the “First 100” event, the restaurant also hosted a food drive on Wednesday. People dropping off five items for the Salvation Army Center of Hope were given a coupon for a free sandwich.

For those new to Chick-fil-A, communications director Lindsay Ables said, it is not just another chicken sandwich. The menu includes fresh ingredients, with chicken hand-battered and made to order. “The boneless, skinless chicken you buy at the grocery store, that’s what this chicken is,” Ables said.

The chicken is cooked in a pressure cooker, something Van Voorn said also adds to its healthy factor. The entire restaurant is trans fat free, and Ables said the real food and freshness are what make the menu so special.

The biscuits, lemonade, and cookies are all made fresh each morning and throughout the day. They have also recently added three new salads to the menu. “It’s as healthy as you want it to be,” Ables said. “There are a lot of different options.”

Chick-fil-A is also known for its customer service. Ables said that is one thing that sets it apart from many other chains.

“We want people to have a wonderful experience. We treat them with honor and dignity and hope to know their names, and talk about their families.”

Owners of the restaurant have the freedom to arrange special events for their stores. One such perk Chick-fil-A will offer is a free chicken sandwich on Wednesdays if customers bring in their church bulletin from the previous Sunday. The restaurant also hopes to host spirit days, with 10 percent of proceeds going to local schools.

Chick-fil-A has hired 86 people. Employees are strongly encouraged to interact with customers, refreshing drinks, clearing trash and saying “my pleasure” when helping people.

“’My pleasure’ simply becomes second nature,” Van Voorn said of his employees. “They take that out into the world.”

Chick-fil-A is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Breakfast is served until 10:30 a.m. each day. The restaurant has two drive-thru lanes and does about 60 percent of its business through the drive-thru. Its goal is to take a customer’s order and serve them within three minutes.

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