Burrito fans camp outside Freebirds World Burrito in quest for free food

Thursday, September 12, 2013 | 8:20 p.m. CDT; updated 6:47 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 13, 2013
Freebirds World Burrito promised of a year's worth of free burritos to the first 25 people in line before the eatery's opening Thursday morning in Columbia.

COLUMBIA — At least 26 people slept on the sidewalk along Broadway on Wednesday night for a chance to get a year's worth of free food. Some waited for more than 18 hours as part of a family tradition. Others stumbled upon the downtown encampment and decided to stay for a chance to meet new people, play poker and have their tarot cards read.

More than 30 people ended up waiting outside Freebirds World Burrito, Eastside Tavern’s newest neighbor, for its opening and the chance to win free burritos for a year. The new downtown eatery offered a burrito every week to the first 25 people outside its door at 10 a.m. Thursday, a prize valued at about $500.

The call of gigantic free burritos attracted a variety of people, some who anticipated the event for weeks. The group included a pastor, a costume designer, a liquor store clerk and several students, among others.

“It’s been a party,” said Zach Baldwin, a cook for MU’s dining halls and No. 11 in line. “It’s kind of nice hanging out with a lot of random people.”

The group passed the time chatting, reading and playing a late-night poker game that lasted more than five hours. Some members of the group danced in the morning rain Thursday before taking shelter in alcoves or tents.

“The only guy who’s going to have a bad time is No. 26,” said Bobby Schembre, music director at Karis Church.

However, No. 26 said he didn’t have a bad time at all. After more than 12 consecutive hours on the sidewalk along Broadway, MU student Bryan Arri walked away without tasting a single burrito.  

He arrived at 10 p.m. and was No. 26 in the queue, just minutes late and one spot away from the guaranteed burritos. He stayed the night in hopes that somebody would give up, but the participants all held their ground, even when it rained briefly at about 9:30 a.m. Arri did not regret his stay, though, and said he still enjoyed meeting people and hanging out.

“It’s really just for the experience now,” he said after learning he had no chance at the prize.

Cheryl Landry joined the group at 5:15 a.m. Thursday on a whim. Although she was No. 29 in line, she said she didn’t regret her decision either.

“I didn’t get anything,” Landry said. “But I did get my tarot cards read and got to see downtown wake up.”

What did it take to be the first in line? Christopher Rhink arrived at the restaurant at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, even though he hadn't been planning to attend the event in advance. Rhink, who has been to multiple Freebirds’ openings, said he was surprised nobody else was already there.

Rhink, , from Kansas City, said he was in the area to camp in nearby parks and decided to go when he heard about the opening. He thinks it's a great opportunity to eat healthy food, but he does not take them too seriously.

“If it’s in the area or I have an easy way to get there the day before, I’ll go,” Rhink said.

Freebirds holds these contests every time a new franchise is opened. There are currently 101 Freebirds restaurants across the country, including three in Missouri. 

Sandra Bigsby, general manager of the Columbia location, said the event went smoothly and there were no problems with the campers. 

“We do have a bit of a cult following,” Bigsby said. “But it’s a laid-back following.”

When the group was given official number cards, which functioned as passesfor the free burritos, members gathered to take a group picture. But not only those with numbers were included; every member of the temporary community was invited.

“You guys come in, too,” someone yelled from the crowd, referring to those without numbers. “You were in this, too.”

As the lucky 25 entered the restaurant, the others walked away, waving to their new friends. 

“I don’t regret staying out there,” Arri said. “But I will certainly accept any burrito donations made to my name.”

Supervising editor is Stephanie Ebbs.

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