Monday, March 29, 2010

A chicken (wing) in every pot: A report from the front lines

I heard about it via Twitter, but everyone else seemed to hear about it on the radio.

The practical upshot was that the new Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant, which replaced the Hooters, which replaced a Japanese restaurant here in town, had its grand opening this morning, and the first 100 (or maybe 95; there was some confusion) people through the door got free chicken wings once a week for a year.

Last night at around midnight I swung by out of curiosity, and found there were about 30 people huddled against the building. It was raining lightly (what we here in Oregon call "dew") and the temperature was in the mid-40s. There were also two nice REI-grade double tents set up on the sidewalk. At first the squatters eyed me a little suspiciously, even though there was room in line for about 70 more people, so cutting in line was neither very likely nor very threatening. Still, I felt a little like Tom Joad pulling into a migrant camp along Route 66. When I began doing a quick head-count, someone joked that I must be from the Census Bureau.

I asked the crowd--I'd guess most were under 30 and there were several children--how many were in line because they just really, really loved wings. Most of them laughed and raised their hands. Then I asked how many were there because they wanted to make sure they'd be able to afford at least one meal a week for the next year. A few hands came down.

If I had to guess, there might have been more iPhones and Blackberrys in the line than sleeping bags.

Near the door, some of the restaurant crew had set up a pop-up canopy/tent and was serving wings to the folks in line. Or at least, it appeared, they served wings until they ran out--which was almost immediately--then a while later brought out another batch, which disappeared about as quickly.

Before I went home to bed--my nice, dry, warm bed--I tweeted about the folks in line:

People are already in line for the opening of the Buffalo Wings in Beaverton. 15 hours early. In the dark. In the rain. 1 yr of free wings.

When the tweet migrated to Facebook, it prompted several comments from friends: "nuts," "sad," and "food lines" appeared at various points throughout the thread. There were also recommendations for better places to get wings, especially if it was going to involve standing in line all night in the rain.

But I was still thinking about the line this morning, so at about 8:30 (the opening was scheduled for 11:00) I went by again. To my surprise, there were about 50 people, but probably no more.

And--here's where the story takes a bit of a turn--the little group closest to the entrance (who seemed to be most in the know) told me that the restaurant crew, for whatever reason but probably including sympathy for people who spent the night in the rain, decided to start letting people in at 9:00am, rather than 11:00. Near the back of the building where I had locked my bike were several guys from the contractor, waiting to finish last-minute work inside, and a little irked by some delay. I wondered if the delay was that the opening had been bumped up two hours--two hours that were supposed to be for them to finish up.

Nine o'clock? Hm. It wasn't raining, I didn't have to be anywhere until early afternoon, I was on my bike, so I was dressed for the weather.

What the hell.

And so for the next hour or so, I was no longer just an observer. I was now about Number 60 in line, not necessarily a True Believer, but part of the Chicken Wing Pilgrimage all the same. The rain returned. A woman in line behind me held a golf umbrella in one hand and with the other held a Laura Ingalls Wilder paperback as she read to her daughters. The two fellows in front of me reviewed the pluses and minuses of the late lamented Hooters that had gone under last fall. (Lots of TV screens was mentioned as an advantage.) I considered trying to start The Wave, but my luck with that has never been very good.

When the doors finally opened, they brought us in about ten at a time, and my cohort nipped inside at a little after 10:00. The tables were festooned with promotional items and balloons, and most people stayed to have chicken wings for breakfast/brunch. I still had my business to take care of, so like maybe one or two out of each ten, I thanked the staff, took a take-out menu and split.

With my book of coupons.

By the time I left, everyone was inside and I'm pretty sure that there were still less than 100 people, although it was close.

I've never had wings from Buffalo Wild Wings--any advice to prepare me for the experience would be welcome.

The book of coupons runs from this week through the end of March 2011.