Some of the folks camped out in the Chick-fil-A parking lot in front of the Marana Target store arrived before the sun rose in hopes of being among the first 100 people in the door Thursday morning. The payoff? A year's worth of free Chick-fil-A meals (one a week for 52 weeks). Cathalena E. Burch / Arizona Daily Star

The parking lot at Marana's about-to-open Chick-fil-A restaurant was cordoned off Wednesday afternoon and transformed into a campground.

Folks set up pop-up tents and canopies and settled in for what has become a beloved tradition when a new Chick-fil-A opens: Be among the first 100 people in the door on opening day and you win a year's worth of chicken sandwich meals.

But there's a hitch: You have to spend the day and night before in the parking lot. If you leave, you lose your spot.

Not a problem for the 58 people who had staked out campsites and set up tents by midafternoon. Moms and dads called in sick to work or took vacation days; Christine Staten who lives nearby pulled her 8-year-old daughter Paige out of school.

"I told them the truth, that we were camping out at Chick-fil-A," she admitted with a smile and quick chuckle. "Hey it's worth it," she added as Paige sipped from a soda cup.

The prize translates to a Chick-fil-A meal a week for 52 weeks, and that was incentive enough for Becky Davis to get up well before dawn and make the 30-minute drive from Sahuarita. She made a pitstop on Tucson's south side to pick up her friend Monica Alegria and they drove the extra 20-minute trip to arrive in Marana at 4:30 a.m.

"I love Chick-fil-A," said Davis, who works from home writing curriculum for Tucson megachurch Victory Worship Center. She often takes her laptop and sets up a remote office of sorts at Chick-fil-A.

"It's a safe place to go to eat and to work," she said, adding that she appreciated the company's Christian philosophy that keeps the grills and fryers off and the doors closed on Sundays.

Chick-fil-A Marana, 3943 W. Ina Road in front of Target, officially opens at 6:30 a.m. Thursday. The parking lot campers will be the first ones through the door, said the restaurant's owner Brian White, a recent transplant from Georgia whose background includes selling running shoes. 

Those who arrived early Wednesday like Davis and Alegria were treated to free breakfast. White and his staff also fed them lunch and dinner, and planned to give the campers cookies and milk Wednesday night. (It's not like they could bring in a grill and make their own dinner, and it would have been kinda awkward for the campers to trot across Ina Road to the McDonald's.) 

And White and his staff put them to work filling plastic bags with ingredients for jambalaya. The goal was to create 10,000 of those bags and donate them to the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.

"It's a fun kind of camping time but the people can help out, too," White said, standing in the dining room just after 3 p.m. as dozens of campers filled bags with beans, rice and spices in an assembly line operation that covered several tables.

The pre-opening campout and community service project started in Phoenix 14 years ago and has since spread to every Chick-fil-A opening around the country. There are over 2,000 restaurants nationwide; with the Marana restaurant, the Tucson area now has five Chick-fil-A locations, including one tucked into the University of Arizona Student Union Memorial Center.

Roxy and Neil Tomkinson of Red Rock are old pros at the Chick-fil-A free-food-for-a-year grand-opening campouts. Wednesday's was the seventh for Roxy, the fifth for her school-teacher husband.

"We've done these in California. I've been to Yuma. I did one in August in Scottsdale. That was hot," Roxy recalled as Neil glued the pieces to a steampunk mechanical arm he was making from felt material and the couple's two sons — Trek, 5, and Brecken, 6  — ran around after putting in their volunteer time. "When they give you free food, why not?" 

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at or 573-4642. On Twitter @Starburch