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CHAMPAIGN — Georgana Hawn woke up before sunrise Wednesday to drive a half-hour from her home in Tuscola to the new Chick-fil-A restaurant on North Prospect Avenue in Champaign to see if she might be able to hang around for 24 hours and win 52 free sandwiches — one a week.
But Hawn, on medical leave from her job with a lawn-care business, didn’t really need to arrive that early. To participate in the chain eatery’s First 100 camp-out event, where 100 free-food winners are chosen by random drawing, entrants just must be there before 6 p.m. and, if chosen, must camp out in the parking lot until 6 a.m.
In fact, Hawn wasn’t even allowed to wait on the premises, so she went back to her car in the neighboring Meijer parking lot and took a nap.
Despite her eagerness to get there, she has never before eaten a Chick-fil-A sandwich.
“I just heard it on TV and I thought this would be a good idea,” Hawn said. “I didn’t have nothing else to do.”
When she got in line a few hours later, a crowd began to form behind her. The first 10, who all arrived early in the afternoon, formed a quick bond.
April Richardson brought board games and an assortment of candy to share. She also brought a chair, which she offered to Will Boyer.
Boyer decided to come when his mother called him after he finished work Wednesday at Advanced Filtration Systems.
“I didn’t even know about the whole thing, but my mom texted me after work, and she said, ‘Go over to Chick-fil-A and stay the night there,’” said Boyer, who also has never eaten a Chick-fil-A sandwich before. “I’m like, ‘Huh?’ So I looked at the thing and I’m like, ‘Oh, OK. I just drove over here.’ (Richardson) offered me a chair and I’m like, ‘OK, I guess I’ll sit here.’”
Sisters Tina Runkicke and Jerianne Havitt told stories of their road trip from Florida in June, which happened to fall on Chick-fil-A’s national cow appreciation day promotion, when the company gives away a free sandwich to any customer wearing a cow shirt. Along with a third sister, they printed shirts and stopped at 20 Chick-fil-A’s for free food on the way back home, they said.
Those first 10 in line agreed that if they won, they’d meet there every month to eat their free sandwiches. In solidarity, they also said that if enough of them won, they’d all stay as guests.
A little after 5 p.m., they became hopeful that they’d be guaranteed the free sandwiches. Only 70 people, including 14 members of the Parkland volleyball team, were in line for the gift cards at that point. The volleyball players’ coach had given them the day off from practice in exchange for a free sandwich from any of them who won.
But the premature optimism soon dissipated. With a half-hour to go, hoards of people began pulling into the neighboring Meijer parking lot and walking over.
By the 6 p.m. cutoff, 266 people stood in line, including children, such as 15-month-old Lewis Franklin and siblings Brayden, 4, and Brooklynn Bennett, 7.
Perhaps the best-dressed attendee was Gifford native Christopher Gunn, who came by himself dressed in suit and tie, wanting to break up the monotony of workaday life.
“I never get to wear this thing, and it was kind of just collecting dust,” said Gunn, another newcomer to Chick-fil-A. “It was like, ‘You know what, let’s dress up. Let’s be the best-looking guy there.’
“I just moved into my first apartment and it’s lots of fun, but it feels like I’ve just been doing work, work, work," he said. "And then I was like, ‘Hey, they’re doing a camp-out at Chick-fil-A. That sounds like it’s something that could break up the monotony of life.’”
When the tickets were finally drawn, Richardson heard her name called early on. After grabbing the first of her free sandwiches inside the store, she circled back and waited anxiously with her new friends.
In the end, though, none of the other members of the newly formed club had their number called.
Hawn and Boyer have to wait a little longer for their first taste of the restaurant’s chicken and its signature sauce. It officially opens for business today.
At the end of long day, though, the experience wasn’t about the chicken.
“We really got to know each other in line in a couple of hours,” Richardson said. “The person that’s running this told us that there have been people who got married because they met at the camp-out. It’s that crazy. They call it Chick-fil-Ationships. That’s shocking. It’s awesome, though.”