How Al Copeland and his spicy thighs turned up the heat on the fried-chicken game
When Al Copeland’s first chicken restaurant, Chicken on the Run, lost more than $10,000 in seven months, he came back with a new name and a new taste: Popeyes Mighty Good Fried Chicken. Opened in Arabi in 1972, it distinguished itself with a spicy seasoning blend. The restaurant started turning a profit in three weeks. With its fiery take on fried chicken, its trademark buttermilk biscuits and an array of Louisiana-inspired side dishes, it would go on to become the foundation for a fast-food empire, in the process turning Copeland into a local celebrity.
More than 2,000 Popeyes restaurants dot the globe, and the company’s roots in New Orleans were celebrated with a 2008 rebranding to Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. In February 2017, the company — now based in Atlanta and which boasts of being the world’s second-largest fast-food chicken chain — was purchased by the Canadian parent of Burger King for a whopper of a price: $1.8 billion.
- Although the cartoon character Popeye has been featured in the restaurant chain’s ads, the restaurant is actually named after Popeye Doyle, Gene Hackman’s character in “The French Connection.”
- Copeland used to joke that there is no apostrophe in Popeyes because he was too poor to afford one.
- To call Popeyes founder Al Copeland “larger than life” would be an understatement. The Times-Picayune’s 2008 obituary of Copeland makes no bones of restaurateur’s colorful ways, including a famed fistfight at Morton’s The Steakhouse, a feud with Anne Rice, and “public displays of opulence such as speedboats kept in a glass-walled showroom along Interstate 10 when he wasn’t racing them, a Lamborghini sports car parked outside his corporate headquarters and, of course, the massive Christmas displays that required sheriff’s deputies to direct the traffic outside his Metairie home.”
- When Copeland took on debts to buy out competitor Church’s Chicken, he lost big and ended up filing for bankruptcy protection. But he was still shrewd: Even though he lost control of all but a handful of the restaurants, he maintained ownership and control of the proprietary spice blend. Popeyes finally purchased the recipe for the spice blend in 2014 for $43 million.
- Popeyes sponsored the Saturday-morning TV show “Popeye and Pals,” which featured New Orleans children watching cartoons and eating fried chicken.
- Dr. John at one point sang the jingle “Love that Chicken from Popeyes,” a version that for years was featured in the chain’s TV ads. Fats Domino and Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. and the Zydeco Twisters also appeared in Popeyes ads.
- Pop megastar Beyonce Knowles loves Popeyes. She told Oprah Winfrey in a 2003 interview that she has a VIP card that entitles her to free chicken for life. Other public devotees of Popeyes include Nicki Minaj, Khloe Kardashian, Kanye West, Anthony Bourdain, chefs David Chang and Hugh Acheson.
Popeyes is intrinsically a part of New Orleans. When NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune launched 2014’s “Quest for the Best” fried chicken in the city, Popeyes was one of the finalists, getting third place in a reader poll. The famous fried chicken is also part of our most sacred traditions: After all, when was the last time you made it through an entire Carnival without having a little Popeyes?