BY Wendy Lu
It’s 48 degrees outside and pouring rain. On the corner of West 37th Street and 6th Avenue, a young woman named Laura Stargel peers into the window of the new Chick-fil-A, shivering. She’s been waiting for three hours to get in and win free chicken meals for a year.
Chick-fil-A officially opened its first full-service restaurant in New York City on October 3. Per company tradition, the restaurant held its famous First 100 Giveaway the night before.
Stargel is one of 300 people who stood in line in front of Chick-fil-A for hours with a raffle ticket in hand, starting at 5 p.m. the day before the opening. Out of those 300 people, 100 heard their raffle ticket numbers called out at random. Those chosen were required to wait inside the restaurant overnight until 6:30 a.m., the store’s opening hour, in order to still be eligible for more than $400 worth of free Chick-fil-A sandwich meals, which include a classic chicken sandwich, waffle fries and a drink.
Stargel’s number was never called.
“I’ve already been out here for three hours, so what’s a few more?” said Stargel, a freshman at The Kings College, a liberal arts college in downtown Manhattan. This was her second time participating in the First 100 Giveaway.
Having grown up in Lakeland, F.L., home to four Chick-fil-A restaurants, Stargel is used to eating Chick-fil-A three times a week regularly, and considers it like home.
“Whenever I came to visit [The Kings College], one of my deal breakers was that New York didn’t have a Chick-fil-A,” said Stargel, who lives across the street from the restaurant. “The day I got home from the college visit, Chick-fil-A announced they were opening one at this address. And then I decided to come to this school.”
Eventually, Stargel gave up and went home around midnight. By the luck of the draw, two of her friends got in.
As part of the First 100 Giveaway, Chick-fil-A included five alternates to participate in the overnight contest, should one of the First 100 decide to leave. Once the participants were chosen, employees brought them up to the second floor of the restaurant for the rest of the night, where they listened to music and watched a movie screening of “Night of the Museum.” Employees gave out snacks, including milk and cookies, to hungry participants.
Kyle Kendrick, a friend of Stargel’s who is also a freshman at The King’s College, was chosen as an alternate winner.
“As the night progressed, people left, which meant I got bumped up,” said Kendrick, a gangly 18-year-old wearing a red Chick-fil-A blanket wrapped around his neck. “I was pretty confident but I didn’t really know up until this morning when we were filing out of the building that we were told we were guaranteed a spot.”
Up until six months ago, Chick-fil-A’s First 100 Giveaways were open to the entire nation, which allowed people from different states to participate in the contests. The company decided to make the event more local so that only residents living within 11 miles of any new Chick-fil-A could participate, said Oscar Fittipaldi, franchise owner of the New York location. Since then, the 11-mile cutoff has been the standard for eligibility.
But amid complaints that the new restriction excluded people from Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island, restaurant officials changed the rules the day before the contest, stating that all New York City residents were invited to join the giveaway.
“We wanted to make it fair so that everyone in the five boroughs of New York City could participate,” Fittipaldi said.
Although the First 100 winners had to provide their addresses on a form, Hannah Swain, 18, said she and her friend Peter Cooper, 26, weren’t asked to provide proof of residence once they were picked as winners even though the rules required them to do so. Kendrick wasn’t asked either.
Both Swain and Cooper said even if they hadn’t been chosen as winners, they would have stayed and waited along with everyone else.
“They made it a lot of fun. They handed out a ton of free stuff,” said Swain, clutching an envelope that held the promise of 52 free Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich meals, which she can cash in whenever she wants. “I have more Chick-fil-A gear than I want to say. We have a tumbler, a lawn chair, two t-shirts, blankets, cow [key chains].”
Not everyone thinks eating fast food regularly for a week is a good idea. Consuming a 1,200-calorie Chick-fil-A meal every week for a year can lead to weight gain, as well as altered cholesterol levels and higher blood pressure, said Marissa Lippert, a registered dietitian and founder of Nourish NYC, a nutrition counseling service in West Village, Manhattan.
“If you’re a student staying up for long hours, you really want your acuity and productivity for studying to be at peak,” Lippert said. “Fast food can make you pretty tired and sluggish. It’s not the best for gaining energy.”
The 12-hour indoor waiting period is not typical of First 100 Giveaways, as participants are usually required to camp outside the restaurant for 24 hours, Fittipaldi said. But the NYC restaurant was unable to follow tradition because the city would not grant a permit for that many people to camp out for that long.
Having that many people stay overnight wasn’t a security risk, he said, as several NYPD officers were there to monitor the contest throughout the night. During the drawing, Kendrick said he saw five people picketing outside the restaurant with signs.
On opening day, 10 members of Collectively Free, a New York City-based animal rights activist group that aims to fight systems of oppression, arrived in the early afternoon to protest the restaurant.
Chick-fil-A, which was founded in 1946, became the subject of widespread controversy in 2012, when chief operating officer Dan Cathy made public comments opposing same-sex marriage. Two years later, Cathy retracted the statement.
Raffaella Ciavatta, co-founder of Collectively Free, participated in the demonstration with her wife, Lili Trenkova.
“We believe that companies like Chick-fil-A promote the idea that some lives matter more than others,” said Ciavatta, 31. “When they say the lives of chickens matter less than lives of humans and therefore it’s okay to kill them, they’re promoting violence. When they say my wife and I matter less than the lives of someone who is heterosexual, they are also perpetuating violence.”
Ciavatta said she and her colleagues will continue to protest against Chick-fil-A until corporate officials publicly apologize to the LGBTQ community and stop serving chicken.
“We don’t take a political stance on anything,” Fittipaldi said. “We run a family business and welcome everyone.”
The restaurant saw nearly 6,000 customers on opening day.
“For many years, we’ve been looking to expand to New York City. It’s been in the works for five years,” Fittipaldi said, adding that real estate and finding a landlord were the main challenges.
In 2014, the restaurant chain made $5.78 billion in total revenue, according to a fast food restaurant report released in August by QSR Magazine. The average Chick-fil-A restaurant makes around $3 million a year.
Headquartered in Atlanta, Ga., the restaurant chain opens 100 locations each year and has 1,950 locations nationwide. Chick-fil-A plans to open a second location on West 46th Street and 6th Avenue in early 2016.