Free chicken for a year for the first 100 customers: Chick-fil-A breaks ground in Tacoma

Hobby Lobby, Bass Pro Shops, and now add Chick-fil-A to the growing list of national brands that have opened doors or broken ground in Tacoma over the past few months.

“If you look at everything that’s offered, Tacoma is a great place to do business,” said Don Ikeler, Chick-fil-A development director, at a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday morning.

Along with the Tacoma location at 3902 S.Steele St., the company also turned dirt this week at sites in Bellevue and Lynnwood.

“We looked at residential data, shopping and traffic,” Ikeler said. “Where we are at today fits all of those. We also like the military being in this area.”

Hiring for the Steele Street store will begin some time in February, Ikeler said, some six weeks before the grand opening in March. He said the company will hire between 50 and 70 people to fill a variety of positions.

The company expects to name an operator for the outlet in November, he said. The pool of candidates for the position has been reduced to three.

Unlike most franchise fast-food outlets, Chick-fil-A asks that an operator invest only $5,000 in a new store. The company pays initial costs and shares ultimate profit 50-50 with the operator, who will typically manage only one facility rather than buy interest in a number of branded franchise outlets.

Beyond the demographic and geographic data the company considered, there has long been demand for a Chick-fil-A in Tacoma, said Blake Goodman, the company’s director of real estate.

“This is the highest requested location in the Northwest,” he told a few dozen invited guests at Thursday’s ceremony. “I wanted to be right here. We fit here. I want people to see that we listened.”

He noted that the company has its headquarters in Atlanta, which was originally known by the railroad-inspired name “Terminus,” and will now open an outpost in Tacoma, which found its early destiny as the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railway.

“For us, this is a journey,” he said. “For us to be here is truly exciting.”

The neighbors agree.

Heather Woods is general manager of nearby Ashley Furniture. “We’re excited,” she said, as rain fell on temporary tents placed beside earth-moving equipment in a former parking lot.

“We heard about this some time ago. We’ve been waiting. It will definitely generate more traffic,” she said.

“This company is putting down roots,” said Tacoma-Pierce Chamber Board President Jeff Brown, in welcoming remarks. “As a community we are very, very, very blessed and look forward to welcoming you.”

“This is not just a groundbreaking. For us, this is a celebration,” said Goodman, answering the welcome. “I don’t know how to tell you how excited we are to be here.”

He continued by announcing that the Chick-fil-A building will be LEED certified and that the operator will attempt to source products locally. He said Chick-fil-A works to source its food from local vendors, and that the company has supported jobs in Washington by purchasing all of the potatoes used nationwide — 483 million pounds in 2013 — from this state.

And those apples in the hand-cut fruit salad? Again, Washington.

Expect more stores hereabouts to break ground soon.

The company, Ikeler said, expects to open “15 or 20” outlets in Washington by 2020, and will open 93 stores nationwide by the end of 2014.

“This is our south-side anchor,” Goodman said. “This is our launching point for the brand. We have six-to-eight deals in the pipeline here right now.”

Albeit for a sound record of community involvement and charitable outreach, the privately held, family owned company has lately seen some controversy over an executive’s comment against same-sex marriage.

For Goodman, the remarks are water long under the bridge.

“We serve every single customer with honor, dignity and respect,” he said. “We welcome everyone. I would like people who have a preconceived notion to visit us.”

Except on Sunday. Chick-fil-A stores are closed on Sundays.

And expect a long line when the store finally opens.

That’s because the first 100 people will be part of an opening day tradition at the company. People form a line. Some camp overnight, for several nights.

It’s because those first 100 each get free chicken for a year.