Richard Coley eats at Chick-fil-A six days a week. He loves the food, obviously. But, even more, he loves the restaurant and everything it stands for.
"I like the fact that they believe in God and Christian principles and they don't compromise," he said.
The 62-year-old from St. Petersburg said he has traveled to more than 110 store openings nationwide for a chance to win a year's supply of chicken sandwiches, fries and a drink. On Wednesday, he went to Temple Terrace for the reopening of the store at 5302 E Fowler Ave. The drive-through-only location had been closed for four months and rebuilt as a standalone restaurant with seating for 100.
Coley arrived well before dawn with his 86-year-old mother to be among the first in line when doors open at 6 a.m. today. His T-shirt told of his allegiance: "Sunday follow me to church. Mon-Sat follow me to Chick-fil-A" — a nod to the company's 1,700 restaurants being closed on Sundays for religious reasons.
Like for all store openings, the Atlanta-based chain offered the first 100 customers a year's worth of food in the form of 52 meal tickets good any time. Devotees spent the day playing cornhole, four square and other group games led by Chick-fil-A employees in the parking lot.
To receive their prize, campers couldn't leave the property and had to live within 25 miles, a rule that applies only to certain grand opening events. Chick-fil-A provided food, sweet tea and the use of the restaurant's bathrooms. Rumor had it that store employees planned to throw stuffed cows from the roof.
Ethan Morency, 23, came at 4:30 a.m. for the lure of free sustenance. He lives nearby.
"It's about $350 worth of food, so to camp out for a day, it's not too bad," he said, adding that the Taco Bell next door delivered.
Devotees brought their tents, sleeping bags, Frisbees and extension cords for juicing up their laptops and iPhones. Some of the many college students carried books.
"I have nothing better to do on a Wednesday," said 20-year-old Akash Patel, who is studying computer engineering at the nearby University of South Florida.
John Yasenca, an unemployed truck driver from Clearwater, has been to so many grand opening events — he lost track at 60 — that a Chick-fil-A manager in North Carolina gave him his own employee name tag: Crazy John. He has so many free meal tickets, he can't possibly eat through them all.
Still, he keeps coming for more.
John Smeltz, 30, of St. Petersburg has been to 19 opening events for the fun and camaraderie of bonding over chicken. He also likes supporting a company that "stuck their necks out" for family values in its stance against same-sex marriage.
"You get here and 30 minutes later, you're best friends with everyone," he said.
He brought an air mattress — a must on the parking lot — and some extra provisions not on the daily menu: a head of broccoli and bunch of celery.
Truth is, as much as he likes Chick-fil-A, he said eating fast food all day long makes him sick.
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.