Restaurant Chains Get Serious with the Giveaways: A Year’s Worth of Free Food

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As far as promotions go, a day of freebies is nice. For example, next Tuesday (3/23), Ben & Jerry’s is giving out free ice cream cones. But one day of giveaways seems pretty skimpy compared to a year’s supply of freebies.

Giveaways are cheap, relatively easy marketing tools for chains, and when the prize is something as hefty as a year’s worth of chicken sandwiches or pancake breakfasts, the contests to win those prizes attract some seriously devoted fans—who only come to embrace the brand more when they win (and probably even when they don’t).

Fans like Jesse Martin, who has got a pretty impressive track record at winning (and consuming) Chick-fil-A food, according to the WSJ:

Jesse Martin camped out overnight this month outside a San Marcos, Texas, Chick-fil-A for a chance to win a year’s worth of chicken sandwiches. The Atlanta-based fast-food chain gives away free meals for a year to the first 100 customers at new stores’ grand openings. So far, Mr. Martin, a 34-year-old college pastor from Austin, Texas, has been to five Chick-fil-A grand openings and won at four of them.

What the chain calls a year’s supply, or about $300 in store credits, lasts about two or three months in the hands of Mr. Martin. “I eat there sometimes two or three times a week. Sometimes I eat there three times a day and eat free all day,” he says. He typically orders the chain’s classic chicken sandwich and nuggets. Mr. Martin shares his winnings with friends and with his 9-year-old son Josiah and 6-year-old daughter Kelli.

Even when he doesn’t have free gift certificates, he typically eats at Chick-fil-A once or twice a week either by himself or with others.

Subway, Krispy Kreme, KFC, Quiznos, and Denny’s are among the other chains known for giving away a year’s worth of food to winners, who are selected because, for example, they submitted a video promoting the brand in a contest, or just because they entered an e-mail address and were chosen randomly. The rise of super-sized freebies seems to directly correlate to the state of the economy:

Free-food offers first gained in popularity during the 1970s, when America was hit hard economically by the energy crisis, says Burt Flickinger III, managing director of consulting firm Strategic Resource Group. “The worst of times economically are the best of times for establishments offering something free,” he adds.

Not only does the company get inexpensive publicity at a time when marketing budgets are tight, but the public apparently reacts in a bigger, more receptive way to the word “free” when the economy is in the dumps.

And hey, when you don’t have a job, you have a lot of time on your hands that could be spent entering giveaway contests. For a lot of people, that’d feel more productive than sending out yet another resume.