Winning enough Chick-fil-A® chicken sandwiches, iced tea, and medium Classic Sides to fill a man’s grave is easy. All you have to do is line up on the sidewalk for three hours with 300 people while the lead-colored sky bleeds into black night; while stinging rain, flung down from heaven by an angry God and then up, into your face, by 32 mph wind gusts, chills you to the bone; while a bleak chorus of freezing cops, frazzled event managers, and other various uniformed persons moan in rounds the following words: This is not the official line. This line is unofficial. This is not the official line. Then you must pray that that same cruel and arbitrary God turns His back on two-thirds of your wretched companions. If He does, and you manage to survive an additional 12 hours inside or near the Chick-Fil-A, then you have won the chicken.
Last Friday, I won the chicken.
Under normal circumstances, I am fundamentally averse to standing in a long line for anything that is not medically necessary, like potassium iodide pills. But as New York City learned last week, with the opening of the city’s first ever full-service Chick-Fil-A on Sixth Avenue in Midtown, the hatching of a new full-service Chick-Fil-A does not occur under normal circumstances. Per company policy, every new restaurant opening is conducted with a level of exuberant fanfare rarely seen in modern American society. The festivities, technically termed “The First 100,” kick off when, from a crowd of hundreds, 100 lucky souls are selected to receive gift cards entitling them to what Chick-Fil-A ambitiously describes as “Food for a Year.” (In fact, the actual prize consists of 52 free Chick-fil-A Sandwich Meals, which would work out to one meal per week, but which almost certainly could not, unaccompanied, serve as a person’s single food source for a year.)
The First 100 winners are not simply free to claim their cards and go home, however; after being selected, they must withstand a 12-hour barrage of bizarre, family-friendly, and interactive on-brand “fun,” featuring lots of rapping, dancing, and singing, in the style of a Christian summer camp talent show, if the camp catered exclusively to adults and was designed by a marketing firm from hell. In some locales, the barrage of family friendly fun lasts 24 hours.
I’m from suburban Atlanta and attended an Episcopal high school, so I’m familiar with the cheery, white-washed brand of Southern hospitality that Chick-Fil-A has mastered, to the tune of over $5 billion a year in sales. I’m also familiar with their food, since I ate it at least once a day for most of my teens. It is, by a long shot, the tidiest, friendliest, best-tasting fast food chain in the country. But as anyone who grew up in the South knows, insidious bigotry often lurks inside the cleanest houses, behind the warmest welcomes. Several times over the course of my childhood, otherwise lovely people made Jewish jokes or comments at the expense of myself or my Jewish father. I have heard family friends use the N-word at beautiful Christmas dinners. Perfectly polite and genteel family members have told me of how they find it disgusting and invasive to see same sex couples express physical affection in public.
Such was the case for Chick-Fil-A, which, while it has never hidden its Christian beliefs—all franchises remain closed on Sundays, for example—found itself mired in controversy in June 2012, when its COO Dan T. Cathy, the son of the chain’s founder, outed himself as a homophobe during a radio interview. “As it relates to society in general, I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,’” he said. “I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we would have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is all about.”
Until the blowback from Cathy’s comments, the chain and its founder’s family supported and donated millions to organizations dedicated to opposing gay marriage. The company has since distanced itself from those groups and Cathy has learned to shut up, but, like we’ve been reminded of recently with Pope Francis—America’s favorite pope who, by the way still thinks abortions are evil and that gay couples are a “threat” to the God’s concepts of families—there’s no real way to reconcile the fundamentals of the company’s hardline Christian beliefs with its new purported message of leaving the debate over gay marriage to politicians.
Chick-Fil-A makes fast food that tastes good. Among the many, many fans of that food are people who are not religious, and who otherwise disagree with the company’s various moral stances. I wanted to see if any hint of that conflict would find its way into the celebratory opening of Chick-Fil-A’s first full-service store in New York. With a very few exceptions, the press was barred from entering the store before the opening. My only option was to slip in covertly. I also wanted free Chick-Fil-A for a year. So I decided to join the masses hoping to be among the First 100.
I arrived just after four p.m. Friday, an hour and a half before the event’s official start. Already, 45 people were lined up Sixth Avenue outside the store’s entrance, getting pelted by the incessant rain. Just ahead of me, leaning against a storefront to keep dry because neither brought an umbrella, were two NYU sophomores whose facial orifices were pierced in various creative ways. Behind me was a young woman who had already received more free-chicken based meals than most people ever will—she and her mother were members of the First 100 at an opening in Oklahoma two years ago—and she had returned to try to win 52 additional weeks of free chicken. That other opening, the woman said, took place outside in the store’s parking lot, and lasted 24 hours, not 12. It’d been worth it, she explained. She would be among the First 100 selected in New York.
Behind her was a group of rowdier chicken fans, including a man in what appeared to be a size XXL varsity jacket. Like the NYU students, he lacked an umbrella and was drenched. A proud expert on Chick-Fil-A openings, he complained loudly about the chain’s controversial initial plans to limit the year’s worth of free combos to those living within an 11 mile radius, which would have excluded people living in several boroughs but allowed residents from some parts of New Jersey the right to participate. (The rules were later modified to include residents of all five boroughs.) “They said they wanted to include their neighbors,” he said, gesturing to the office buildings surrounding the midtown restaurant. “The people that live and work here should eat filet mignon, not Chick-fil-A!” Later, the same man joked about the movie the winners would be shown that night, Night at the Museum. “You’d think they’d show the Passion of the Christ instead. Maybe it’s a double feature.”
Not long after my arrival, a single protester appeared and briefly stood in front of the line. Leaving my umbrella to hold my place, I walked up and took a photograph of the woman, who was holding four signs. As I turned to leave, she asked me what I thought about the signs’ message. “Oh, I haven’t read them yet, I just wanted to take a picture,” I said, truthfully. As I tried to back away, she angrily told me about what she perceived as a war against the homeless by Chick-Fil-A, which required proof of residence in NYC for the free food promotion, thereby depriving the transient of their chance at free chicken. She made sense, but it was cold, I missed my umbrella, and her point was not a complicated one, so I interrupted her and returned to my spot.
A few minutes later, I heard the loud man in the varsity jacket saying the protester should find a better way to help the homeless. “There must be a better food to give to them than fried chicken,” he told his neighbor. This man was not one of the First 100 selected in New York.
At about a quarter to five, a camera crew approached me and a woman asked if I’d like to be interviewed for Chick-Fil-A. I declined due to the secret nature of my mission and being cold and tired but, overhearing the request, both NYU students jumped at the opportunity. One, from Georgia, spoke about eating Chick-Fil-A growing up and both talked about the limited-service branch on NYU’s campus. “Have you had the breakfast?” the woman asked.
“It’s my favorite part!” one exclaimed. “When I wake up I feel like I have a hole in my soul if I don’t have any Chick-Fil-A’s chicken biscuit. I’m so excited.” After talking about what camping out outside would be like—“It’s really cold and wet. This is a harsh environment”—the other yelled, laughing, to the camera: “We love Chick-Fil-A! Even more than we love gay rights!” It was the only time I heard anyone mention the controversy.
[There was a video here]
By this point, everyone in the line —even those of us who’d brought umbrellas, and waterproof jackets and shoes—was soaked and shivering . There was still close to an hour before we’d get our raffle tickets. I bought a pint of overpriced Maker’s Mark at the liquor store next to the line.
Just after 5:30 the line began to inch forward. We were brought, five at a time, around the corner and into a fenced off area in front of the customer-less but bustling Chick-Fil-A. We were asked to show proof of residence in New York and then given small red tickets, onto which an employee scribbled our initials. Then we were shuffled to a second fenced off area, where we waited for another miserable hour as the rest of the line—which by this point stretched around the block —went through the same process.
By 6:00 pm, the fenced area was filled with soaked, freezing hopefuls, our umbrellas jutting over the barriers into the cramped passage left for pedestrians between the waiting area and the line. Some people walking past glared—it was Friday rush hour, after all—but most people seemed curious or amused. “For Chick-Fil-A? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Eventually, Chick-Fil-A abandoned their plan to verify addresses, and employees simply began walking down the line handing out tickets. This seemed to save time, but it enraged a large man dressed in shorts and flip flops standing a few feet behind me in the pen. “CHECK THEIR IDs,” he bellowed, drawing the attention of one of the dozen or so NYPD officers lurking about. “If you don’t calm down I will have you thrown out,” the cop said. “It’s not fair,” said the large man, who was holding a gigantic rainbow umbrella. The two argued some more before the cop made another threat, at which point the man quieted down. He was not one of the First 100 selected in New York.
A man in front of me repeatedly tried to start a chant, to no avail: “What do we want? Chicken! When do we want it? Now!” No.
Finally, the raffle began. Through two loudspeakers, a man in a bright red vest and bright red shoes thanked us for our patience, and began to alternate between reminding us that a Chick-Fil-A was about to open right here, right on this very spot, and calling out raffle numbers. The winner’s reactions as they were Raptured into the warm glow of Chick-Fil-A varied. Some people shouted. Some jumped up and down. Some barely said anything. When my number—4146—was called, I didn’t do much except say, “That’s me” and open the fence. The NYU kids cheered. I was the 41st person picked.
I walked past the master of ceremonies, who told me to keep on walking to the store’s entrance. An NYPD officer took my ticket and read the number to a Chick-Fil-A employee, who confirmed that my ticket had been selected. The cop nodded and let me pass.
Inside was a surreal scene. Twenty or so Chick-Fil-A employees, all loudly applauding and cheering, were lined up inside the restaurant’s entrance to welcome me. About half of them, apparently having been previously informed that I was wearing an Atlanta Braves hat, greeted me with the Tomahawk Chop. It was my personalized version of the martyr’s paradise promised to terrorists.
[There was a video here]
In the restaurant’s second floor, I stood behind the other winners, waiting my turn to sign away my image rights, plus the standard liability releases. I was given a free plastic tumbler with my number—41—written on the bottom, and a wristband. Over the course of the night, I’d “win” two stuffed cows, two t-shirts, a blanket, a folding chair, and a sleeping mask, all emblazoned with the Chick-Fil-A logo.
After signing my papers, I found an empty seat. The restaurant’s second floor was, at this point, already mostly full. Soon a flustered-looking man in his mid-30s, wearing an expensive-looking wool coat, sat down across from me. After flipping through his forms and shaking his head, he called someone to tell them the news about his sudden chicken windfall. Instead of joyous, he was a wreck. He told the other person how awful he felt that he’d been selected and not his friend, who, he said, had loaned him the nice wool coat. “I should’ve given it back to him when I was called,” he wailed. “That would’ve been the right thing to do.” He hung up. A few seconds passed. “Fuck!” he yelled, looking into his hands. I raised my eyes. “I just feel so bad,” he told me. “It’s probably fine,” I replied. I don’t remember seeing him the next morning, so he may have been one of the rumored three people who gave up overnight.
As the rest of the numbers were being called outside, the winners inside sat around and checked their phones. There was some awkward small talk, mostly about the night’s rumored activities. When all one hundred winners had been selected, another man dressed in a bright red vest and bright red shoes—the shoes are what separated them from the regular Chick-Fil-A employees, who wore charmless black sneakers that resembled orthopedics—gave a rousing speech about the wonders of sweet tea and its new availability in New York. “We want this night to be special,” he said. “We want it to be about you. We want it to be about the family, the tradition, and the community here in New York City.”
Next, the man who’d announced the raffle winners outside took the mic and introduced himself as Billy, and said he was our host for the evening. Billy was the clear leader of the three other red-vested and red-shirted men. With a strong Southern drawl, he welcomed everyone and threatened us with a “whip nae nae” contest later in the evening. He asked us to Tweet and Instagram with the appropriate hashtag, and then told us we were going downstairs for our free dinner, “all the ladies” first, followed by the men in descending order of age. But first, “Walk It Out” came on and he encouraged a dance off.
For dinner, we were given three options: the Number One combo—a fried chicken sandwich, waffle fries (in this case, to everyone’s disappointment, “waffle chips”), a Number Five—eight nuggets and waffle chips—and a Number Eight—grilled chicken sandwich, “fries,” and a drink. I picked the fried chicken sandwich.
I ate standing over a trashcan (no free seats) and then sat at a table with three NYPD officers who’d been outside earlier. One of the officers said she’d been given a chicken sandwich earlier and that it was alright. I walked to the bathroom to fill my tumbler with bourbon. (Alcohol, like gay marriage, is not allowed at Chick-Fil-A, but with enough ice Maker’s Mark looks like sweet tea.)
There was a long lull in activity. I found a seat at a table with three woman. We’d nearly exhausted the usual small talk topics when Billy again took the mic, standing on a chair. “This is going to be a little bit tricky,” he said, after introducing the idea of Chick-Fil-A prizes to cheers. “Can everybody stand up and push their chairs under their table quickly?” We all did as we were told. “Find someone you don’t know,” he said. “And give them a high five.” Everyone in my line of sight did just that, most with impressive enthusiasm.
Billy raised the stakes, asking us to give 17 high fives to 17 new people. The first person to finish would receive a small stuffed cow. Again, everyone, myself included, participated, running around the room like children.
Stuffed cow distributed to a random winner, Billy told us to pick a partner. I turned and saw a short, balding mustached man in glasses, maybe 40 or so, standing next to me. We partnered up. Billy told us to ask our partners four things: Our names, our home towns, our favorite movie, and what our at-bat music would be if we were baseball players.
My partner introduced himself as Michael. “I’m from New York!” he told me excitedly. “Right here on 42nd Street. That’s how I found out about this.”
He fretted over not remembering the other questions. I reminded him. “Oh, favorite movies, what’s my favorite movie. I can’t remember!” He put his head into his hands. We were on the clock—another small stuffed cow had been offered as a reward—so I suggested picking the first movie that came to mind. “That’s what I’m trying to do!” he said, briefly lifting his head from his hands. Time was up. We’d answered one question each.
Billy asked the group if anyone had a partner who was born more than 100 miles away. The first to raise their hands, he said, would get a free cow. Michael looked at me with wide eyes. “You’re from Atlanta, Taylor! That’s more than one hundred miles away.” And he began to jump with his hand raised. Billy, unfortunately, was picking people from the other side of the room. “Alberta, Canada.” Two cows passed out. “New Mexico.” Another two cows. Finally, he turned to us.
“Taylor’s from Atlanta!” Michael yelled. We each got a cow.
Billy asked us if anyone had an unusual favorite movie. “Princess Mononoke,” a person in the back said. “What? Princes Mono—nookaay? That’s not a real movie,” Billy said. Deuce Bigelow and Footloose were mentioned. The NYU kids shouted together, “Hands on a Hard Body, Hands on a Hard Body.”
Michael turned to me. “I remembered,” he said quietly, smiling. “Cruel Intentions.” He raised his hand, waved it until Billy called on him. “Cruel Intentions!” Billy smiled, and repeated it to the crowd.
Billy told us his favorite movie was Good Will Hunting. He asked to guess how many kids he had. “Zero,” someone shouted. “Close,” he said. “I have three kids. Anyone want to guess their ages? They’re three, two, and one year old. Right? Snap. A moment of silence for me.”
We moved on to the at-bat songs. “I’m about to turn the tables on you,” he said. “Some of you had an at-bat song that was really tight. I’m going to turn it up a little bit, get turnt if you will. I’m going to give the microphone to four people who can perform their at-bat song on this chair through this microphone. But you got to bring it.”
A woman sang “You Make My Dreams,” by Hall and Oates. A few people hooted along with the chorus. A young man from Birmingham, Alabama, named Will followed her with a clean versions of Kelis’s “Milkshake.”
“If you know the words sing along with me,” he told us. “When we get to the ‘D right’ part [“Damn right”] we’re going to say, ‘delight,’ alright? Does that sound good?” Everyone said it sounded good. Then he sang.
[There was a video here]
A woman, Shanice from Brooklyn, sang the Fugees’ version of “Killing Me Softly.” She was easily the best of the volunteers. Then Billy asked if anyone wanted to rap. A young woman raised her hand and volunteered to sing part of “Empire State of Mind.” She may have been a plant, because her take, which nearly everyone sang and clapped along with, was followed by the real version, which one of the red-vested hosts had cued up on the sound system. Billy stood on his chair and danced to it. He asked us to take our phones out and film the New York-centric chorus, using, of course, the appropriate hashtag when we posted it. “Let’s give it up to Jay-Z!” he said at the song’s end.
[There was a video here]
Then he rapped. Here it is.
[There was a video here]
Next was a Rock, Paper, Scissors contest. Michael was again my partner. He claimed he’d never played before, so I explained the rules to him. He seemed to almost get it. I lost, and got to sit down. Michael lost in the next round. After the final match, a young woman in a Yankees cap was declared the champion and given a red fleece blanket as DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” blared. Most everyone threw their hands up. Then we all got red fleece blankets, just like we were audience members at Oprah’s show, as Billy put it.
[There was a video here]
Following the blanket distribution we were forced to do the Cupid Shuffle for what felt like hours. Next it was time for a group Whip/Nae Nae dance, led by Billy. After explaining the basics to us, Silento’s song came on and everyone, save for a few people, enthusiastically danced along. As far as I know, I was the only person there who was not stone sober.
[There was a video here]
Before we got to watch Night at the Museum, the screen for which was, inexplicably, set up across the street on a flatbed truck, we endured one more rap, though this one by a younger red-vested host. I believe the song was called, “I Love Chick-Fil-A.”
[There was a video here]
Movie time. The vast majority of the First 100, probably about 85, settled quietly into the free Chick-Fil-A camping chairs we’d each received to watch the movie through the store’s windows; the audio was provided via wireless headphones.
The remaining 15 stayed in the back section of the restaurant’s second-floor, where they talked and laughed with little concern for those watching. The movie-watching faction occasionally glared back in annoyance, but the talkers were undeterred: They were in their element. Despite entering as strangers, they’d seemingly bonded instantly, perhaps because of how the wholesome event resembled the Christian camps or study groups they’d no doubt spent a great deal of time in. These were mostly young people—late teens to late 20s, I’d guess—who were having their version of a wild time.
When I first walked back to hang with my fellow cool peeps, a Chick-Fil-A employee was talking to the group about some charity he worked with online, the name of which slips my mind because at this point I’d made it through two-thirds of my bourbon.
Later, a woman in the rebel camp suggested doing some sort of group video project. suggested doing some sort of group video project. The rest of the group agreed. “It’s too bad the ‘Harlem Shake’ dance is so old,” the “Milkshake” singer suggested. “It would’ve been perfect.”
“Let’s do every meme ever tonight,” he said. “Planking. The Harlem Shake. Does anyone remember horsemanning? It’s when one person lays down and puts their head out of view and someone else puts their head in their hand.”
There was talk of staying up all night. “I’m definitely staying up all night,” one kid said, his voice a high Texas twang. “I have to take the bus to pick two people up at the airport tomorrow at 10. New first-years.”
“Are you in college in New York?” I asked.
He told me he was in his second year with a Christian organization in New York, where he was learning about audio and video set ups for concerts. “I think I could work for any band now, with the experience I’ve gotten.”
He repeatedly told us how warm it typically was in Texas.
There were jokes—“Does anyone want to hear a dirty story?” one kid asked. “A horse fell down in the mud.”—and talk of Christian loyalty.
The “Milkshake” singer spoke of caring for someone he didn’t like, because that person was Christian. “It’s like Tim Tebow,” he said. “He’s terrible at football, but I have to love him because he’s a Christian.”
The movie ended, and Chick-Fil-A employees passed out cookies, milk, and custom sleeping masks. Most people found areas to spread out in chairs or laid on the floor to try to sleep. Any rest, though, was difficult; While the red-vested hosts eventually turned off the sound system, the group of kids in the back stayed up all night long, talking and laughing. The store’s bright overhead lights were never dimmed. One of the 100 winners talked with two red-vested hosts about his ministry for over an hour, all three positioned maybe a foot in front of my sleeping area. At 2:30 a.m., I managed to finally doze off.
Two hours later, at 4:30 a.m. exactly, one of the red-vested hosts woke us all up. We had to leave the store at 5 a.m., to stand outside in the 41 degree weather and rain, so the restaurant could be cleaned in time for its grand opening at 6:30. We were repeatedly told to get up and use the restrooms while we still could, like toddlers about to be forcibly embarked on a road trip with their parents. Then we were put in line, in reverse order, and marched outside into the cold, where we waited for an hour for the store to reopen.
At about 5:30, groggy photographers from various publications arrived and started taking our pictures. A Chick-Fil-A camera crew moved up and down the line. Finally, at six, it was time to receive our gift cards. The line staggered forward in a daze until it was my turn to reenter the building. There was another huge reception: Employees and random people in plain clothes (perhaps Chick Fil-A executives?) clapped and cheered as we walked in. The franchise owner, Oscar Fittipaldi, handed us envelopes, a number scrawled the outside, containing our cards. Then, back into the cold to track down a Chick-Fil-A employee who wrote down the envelope’s number, so our cards could be activated. The event was over, unless you wanted breakfast.
[There was a video here]
I got back in line, behind perhaps a dozen of the First 100 winners and 20 or so other Chick-Fil-A obsessives who’d shown up. Behind me was a photographer from Gothamist, who told me he’d been kicked out of the store twice already because no press was allowed in before the opening. The only option, he figured, was to buy some food—he’d never had Chick-Fil-A—and then take pictures. His plan worked, though he later said he hated the food.
I went to the opening because I wanted to see if Chick-Fil-A’s culture would work in New York, and because I wanted free chicken. I got the free chicken.
After eating two chicken biscuits, I walked to the subway, freezing, with a gift card worth about $400 in my wallet. Inside a case in my drenched backpack was my $2000 MacBook Pro Retina, which, as I’d discover when I got home, had short-circuited at some point during the four hours I spent outside in the cold and rain.