FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS — Despite or because of the controversy over gay marriage comments made by Chick-fil-A's president, a lot of people turned out to support the new restaurant at 6203 N. Illinois St. in Fairview Heights and more than 1,000 went to the restaurant in the food court of St. Clair Square as well.
On Wednesday afternoon a long line snaked down the mall corridors and to the Chick-fil-A inside the Food Court at St. Clair Square in Fairview Heights. The line was 175 people long at 2:30 p.m. and had been much longer earlier in the day.
It snaked by several other food outlets, out of the food court and down a corridor.
People were waiting hours to buy sandwiches to support company president Dan Cathy's stance. Many were there as part of a national effort called Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, promoted by two former Republican presidential candidates. The company stressed that the promotion was not in any way sponsored by Chick-fil-A.
The Chick-fil-A controversy over gay marriage erupted when Cathy told the Baptist Press that the company was "guilty as charged" for backing "the biblical definition of a family." In a later radio interview, he ratcheted up the rhetoric: "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."'
Eva Horn, 72, of Granite City, said she made a special trip Wednesday to the Chick-fil-A inside St. Clair Square "to support straight marriage and the founder of Chick-fil-A."
Horn said she, her husband, her daughter and her son-in-law had to wait in a line for about an hour to get served, due to a large crowd on hand.
Gay rights groups, including Equality Illinois, are calling for a same-sex "kiss-in" on Friday outside Chick-fil-A restaurants.
Debbie Cannon of Mascoutah said she was there with her husband, John, pastor of Victory Church in O'Fallon, to support the restaurant.
"I heard of the day and I said we're going to support it because we strongly believe in what they stood up for," she said.
Store officials were not allowed to comment on the crowd or how the day went, but people in line were amazingly patient, waiting for up to two hours for service as employees scrambled to serve everyone.
Many commented on how polite everyone was and how many tables in the food court seating area were filled with Chick-fil-A bags.
Fairview Heights was also drawing Chick-fil-A fans for a less-political reason -- the promise of free food as the chain opens a new restaurant, in front of the Lowe's store.
Anne Lerner, a spokeswoman for Chick-fil-A, said people started arriving around 2 a.m. on Wednesday for their promotion that offers free food to the first 100 customers. She said she counted 130.
A drawing determined at random who would get the first 100 numbers. Ten alternate numbers also were awarded.
Drawing the first number was Randy Stein of Fairview Heights, who was bemused by the whole process.
"I just came over for curiosity's sake," he said. "I was astounded I got No. 1 in the drawing. I didn't think I'd last past breakfast."
No. 1 or no. 100, it's all the same. The first 100 contest entrants complying with official rules will receive a grand prize of free food for a year: One Chick-fil-A meal of a chicken sandwich, waffle potato fries and drink each week for a year -- 52 meals.
The pre-opening "camp out" is a tradition with every new restaurant the chicken sandwich chain opens, Lerner said, starting in Arizona in 2003.
The standalone restaurant will provide 90 jobs, she said.
Stein was by himself in a lawn chair in a line of chairs arranged on the north side of the store in the shade. He was counting on his wife bringing him some support equipment in the afternoon.
"This is really kind of cool," he said. "People have electric fans and computers. They feed you. I had a chicken biscuit and hash browns for breakfast.
"Everybody is so nice. It's a really orderly crowd. This all blows my mind. I didn't realize it would be this involved with all the kids and families.
"I'll just have to see if I make it all the way."
He had to last until 6 a.m. Thursday morning when the prizes were to be awarded.
By early afternoon the lawn chairs had shifted to the south side of the restaurant to avoid the sun and all sorts of games were being played on the parking lot.
Apparently attending these openings and getting free food has become tradition for some people.
Bill Loving and his wife, Cyndi, from Barnhart, Mo., were among a group of 37 people who were camping together.
"We're calling it a vacation," Loving said. "When you have eight kids you have to take these kinds of vacations."
The group had numbers for the drawing ranging from 5 to 107. They had games and activities for kids of all ages from the babies at age 8 months to the older kids who had a hot game of Four Square going on the parking lot.
Loving said it is the sixth Chick-fil-A opening they have done in the past two years around the region.
Todd Moore of Atlanta, Ga., had number 3.
He said he and a couple of friends are regulars at such events. They left Atlanta about 11 p.m., Tuesday.
"We made it with a few minutes to spare," he said. "Last week we were in Maryland. Next week we'll be in Maryland again."
Bryce Steinhoff had number 100. He was playing Scrabble with John Wehrle, who had 74. Both men were from St. Charles, Mo. They were prepared for the wait.
"The key is sandals, and keeping out of the heat," Wehrle said. "When you think about it, it is a tremendous amount of free stuff. It's good if you have a job that allows you to do this."
The restaurant was offering free food and drinks, with ice and iced tea available outside. Lerner said there would be games and treats all through the day and night and a misting tent for cooling off.
She said the people that participate in these are a great bunch and honest, but still they had occasional roll calls to make sure everyone with a number was still there.