Chick-fil-A fanatics line up for Somerset opening

Ian Thibodeau, and Holly Fournier

Troy — Hundreds of Chick-fil-A enthusiasts crowded the Somerset Collection food court Thursday in a line snaking around tables to welcome the restaurant's first Michigan mall location.

Troy Mayor Dane Slater was on-hand for a ribbon-cutting during the fast-food eatery's 10 a.m. grand opening, according to company spokeswoman Cindi Pickett.

The Rayfield family of Detroit, clockwise from left, Alex, 15, mother Ricki, father Jeff, Josh, 12 and Jacob, 11, erect a tent on the roof of the parking structure at Somerset Collection North in Troy on Wednesday. The family, formerly of Alabama are waiting in line to be one of the first 100 adults for Thursday's grand opening for a shot at 100 free meals for a year. Gary Malerba/Special To The Detroit News

The unveiling came 24 hours after the first pressure-fried chicken fanatics pitched their tents in the parking garage for their chance at 52 free No. 1 meals, to be given away to the line's first 100 people. The No. 1 is an original Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich, a side of fries and a drink.

Those first 100 customers were escorted into the mall Thursday morning by Chick-fil-A's iconic cow mascots as employees welcomed them by banging on pots and pans, Pickett said.

Latecomers stuck around, despite missing out on a chance for free food.

"It's just non-stop and it continues to grow," Pickett said of the line.

A mall security guard told Pickett that this grand opening stands out among countless others during his 12 years of employment at the mall.

"He's never seen anything like this, any opening at the mall that's produced such a huge, enthusiastic approach, let alone the line," Pickett said of her conversation.

Earlier Thursday, Pickett predicted the long lines that became reality.

"They're very, very excited," Pickett said of a festive group awaiting the opening. "I think (the staff) is ready for a big crowd (on Thursday); I think there's going to be a huge welcome from the community, that's for sure."

That welcome began with the first campers Wednesday.

Chick-Fil-A franchise owner Blake Dennard of Troy stands in a camp fans set up ahead of the Somerset Collection site’s opening.

Jeffrey Cairns, 22, of Shelby Township, claimed a campsite at 10 a.m. Wednesday with his friends on the top floor of the parking garage.

Phil Irvine, Cairns’ 26-year-old cousin, said Chick-fil-A makes his favorite fast-food chicken sandwiches. “It’s real chicken,” he said. “It’s fresh.”

Cairns agreed: “You can’t beat it.”

The duo was joined by Alex Barile, 22. They arrived at Somerset at 10 a.m. Wednesday behind two other groups. By midafternoon Wednesday, about a dozen people were in line and the lucky first 100 were on site by 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Pickett said.

Barile, Cairns and Irvine didn’t bring tents with them on Wednesday, but their friends planned to deliver them later as the group expected to stay outside on the upper parking deck, with a forecast calling for rain Wednesday night.

But the campers were spared rainfall when Chick-fil-A officials moved them downstairs around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday to the third floor of the parking deck, near the Macy's entrance.

Some of those fans included Melinda Rakes, 50, Kyle Monroe, 30, and Kayla Mott, 23, who set their tents up in a circle and were chatting Wednesday afternoon. They didn’t know each other prior to setting up camp.

Rakes and Mott had lived in Virginia and Alabama, where Chick-fil-A is immensely popular. “I would never do this for anything except Chick-fil-A,” said Rakes, a Washington, Mich., resident.

Mott, a Rochester Hills resident, said the Chick-fil-A sauce is impossible to replicate; she’s tried, and she’s excited to be able to go to the restaurant in Michigan now. “Chick-fil-A is in my blood,” she said.

The restaurant will open its doors Thursday and the Somerset Collection site is the chain’s first Michigan endeavor in a mall.

Michigan's first free-standing Chick-fil-A location — at 5617 West Saginaw Highway in Lansing — also opened Thursday morning. The restaurant already has satellite locations at Detroit Metro Airport and on the Oakland University campus.

The restaurant chain, which started in Atlanta in 1967, has 2,079 stores in 48 states. They pressure-fry chicken breasts for their sandwiches and all the chicken they serve is hand-fileted, battered and fried in 100-percent peanut oil. Lemonade, biscuits and salads are all made fresh daily as well. The company did over $6 billion in sales in 2015.

Blake Dennard, franchise operator at the Somerset location, previously said he was excited to open Thursday. “The fan base continues to amaze me,” he said. “We have a crazy fan base. I’m excited to be in a place where they haven’t really had” the food.

Chick-fil-A has received accolades for customer service and treating employees well (they get college assistance and guaranteed Sundays off), but has received criticism in the past over donations made to an organization that opposes same-sex marriage.

In April, the company said it wants to open a few new restaurants a year for the next five years in locations near Kalamazoo, Metro Detroit, Grand Rapids and Lansing. It typically opens between 90 and 100 restaurants a year.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau