Free food, cheerleaders, a band: Chicken fingers restaurant opens to a 100-person line

By 9 a.m. Thursday, one hour before opening, the line for a first taste of Raising Cane's famous chicken tenders and special sauce was 100 strong, curving around the building and clear into the carless drive-through.

Matthew Mavandi and his wife, Kambrea, were at the front of the pack.

The Tustin residents began camping out at the new Costa Mesa restaurant at 11 a.m. Wednesday. For their dedication, they each received a year's worth of free Raising Cane's food, as did the 18 people behind them.

Mavandi made good use those hours in line. Clutching his MCAT book, Mavandi was reading up for medical school. He hopes to become an otolaryngologist — an ear, nose and throat doctor.

"I've spent most of my time here studying," he said.

The free food was one part of the festive atmosphere Thursday morning at Raising Cane's grand opening. Estancia High School cheerleaders and the school's band performed outside. Raising Cane's fan and former Los Angeles Clippers player Glen Davis made an appearance, leading the crew and attendees in cheers and working the kitchen.

The Baton Rouge, La.-based chain, named after the founder's yellow Labrador, picked Costa Mesa as its first California location. About 80 workers were hired for the opening.

Raising Cane's designed the restaurant's interior with many Costa Mesa touches in mind.

Fall sports schedules for Costa Mesa and Estancia high schools are on the wall, as is the score history of the annual Battle for the Bell game, from 1966 to 2011. Down the way are badges from Costa Mesa's police and fire departments, old tickets from the Pacific Amphitheatre and a Santa Ana Army Air Base sign.

The roughly 3,800-square-foot restaurant at 3150 Harbor Blvd. — which had been a Burger King from 1977 until earlier this year — also pays homage to its home street. An arrow and the word "now" directs readers to look out the window and see the Harbor Boulevard of today. Another arrow and the word "then" points to a black-and-white picture, nailed to the wall, of the Harbor Boulevard of yore.

Mayor Steve Mensinger was among the city and chamber officials who attended the grand-opening event.

Raising Cane's opening is "about commerce," he said. "It's about the foodie culture we have here in Costa Mesa. We say it's 'Costa Mesa cool.'"

In her remarks, Raising Cane's Area Manager Cheryl Reed talked about some of the company's traditions. She showed off a sockeye salmon near the entrance, which symbolizes founder Todd Graves' commercial fishing exploits in Alaska that helped raise the seed money for the first restaurant.

Reed presented a hard hat, symbolizing hard work, that the crew will sign. She also unveiled a small toy cricket.

The cricket's significance, Reed said, dates back to building the first Raising Cane's restaurant in Baton Rouge in 1996. Graves saw them at the construction site and worried about an insect infestation. He changed his mind after hearing that crickets are considered a sign of future prosperity and good luck.

"It really makes me proud to say we're over 240 restaurants strong," Reed said. "We are in our 20th state going into our 20th year. It really says a lot about what high-quality chicken fingers can do for you."

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