By Christina Rexrode, AP Business Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Adam Moore once drove 500 miles just to eat a burrito at a Chipotle he'd never been to.
Alan Klein is working on a smartphone app to help fellow enthusiasts track down the transient McRib sandwich.
And Ben Skelton made an unusual choice for best man in his upcoming wedding: the Chick-fil-A cow.
"I've already told my best man that he's going to be my second-string best man," said Skelton, a 28-year-old chaplain's assistant in the Air National Guard. "I just haven't told him that he got beat out by a cow."
Call it fanaticism or simply dedication, but these are the type of ultra-enthusiastic fans that every restaurant craves. Restaurant groupies have always been around, but they're more valuable at a time when the economy is forcing consumers to choose carefully when they eat out, and a few online posts can inform the opinions of thousands. While there are no known statistics on these fanatics or even agreement on who qualifies as one, restaurant chains realize that influencing a few hyper-excited fans with free food and T-shirts can sometimes be more effective — and much cheaper — than a big advertising campaign.
"You really can't buy publicity like that," said Chris Arnold, spokesman for Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., referring affectionately to "lunatic customers" who do things like dress up as burritos to score free meals at the Colorado-based chain. He adds that the company tries to cultivate "loyalty and, in extreme cases, even evangelism."
Fast food has indeed become the gospel for many. About 23% of Americans eat fast food at least 20 times a month, according to Jeff Davis at Sandelman & Associates, and another 20% indulge 12 to 19 times a month. But few restaurants inspire cult-like dedication. Those that do usually offer only one or two main products, or they're able to create an aura of scarcity.