Popeyes at 50

This year is the 50th anniversary of Popeyes Fried Chicken. Al Copeland, Jr., the late founder’s son now runs the business which consists of the spice distribution to the nationwide fleet of Popeyes, as well as running Copelands full-service restaurants. The chicken chain is now under the ownership of a Florida based company, but it certainly capitalizes on the Copeland legacy, even calling the business “Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.”

According to Copeland, Jr., his dad would assess his personal weaknesses and strengths accordingly: he couldn’t sing, he couldn’t dance, but he had great tastebuds.

In the book “Secrets of a Tastemaker,” published to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Popeyes, Al, Jr. says that the product served at his dad’s 1972 original fast-food venture, called “Chicken on the Run,” located on Judge Perez Street in St. Bernard Parish, was undistinguished. “Big Al,” as the family referred to the founder, knew he had to give the chicken its own character. An internal debate began. Al would spend many hours experimenting on flavors. He would have taste tests—comparing the spicy with the normal. At first the verdict was inconclusive. The spicy certainly had a kick but there was concern that it was too hot for kids. Copeland was convinced that once customers tried the brand a few times they would grow to like it. That was proved one day when an irate customer came in and wanted a refund because the chicken was too hot. Copeland responded by giving the man some additional pieces and asked him to give the chicken a second chance. The man did, returned after a few days to buy more, and became a forever fan of the seasoned brand.

There were some subtle innovations too. Copeland noticed that another chain would fry its chicken and then keep it under a hot lamp, where it would get dry and lose its flavor. Copeland insisted that his chicken had to be battered, fried and sold within 30 minutes to keep it fresh.      

Copeland and Chef Paul Prudhomme (operating the famed K-Paul’s restaurant) might not have realized it but they were redefining Cajun cuisine. The early Cajuns never heard of blackening their fish, as popularized by Prudhomme. Chicken served at home was frequently stewed, but if served fried it was rarely spiked with Copeland stye heat. Yet, because of Popeyes and Prudhomme, Cajun would come to be characterized as being very spicy; what might be called nouveau Cajan.

One classic dish would be recreated by Popeyes. From the beginning a side dish was a take-off of the “dirty rice” that was common to Acadian meals. Being in rice country, the grain was plentiful and would originally be cooked with a mix of ground organ meats and perhaps bell pepper or whatever else the gardens provided. On the market, however, the term “dirty” is negative so Copeland changed it to “Cajun Rice,” a mixture of rice, seasonings and standard ground meat. To a new generation, spicy chicken and Cajun Rice were the bounty of the bayou country.

After a few years Popeyes would add another side dish, this one a modification of a New Orleans standard. Warren LeRuth, an extraordinary chef who had operated “LeRuth’s,” a signature restaurant on the West Bank was hired by Copeland to do product development. He wanted to create a better version of red beans and rice. In a city where practically every lunch counter sells the dish as a Monday tradition there is no shortage of recipes, but LeRuth’s version was better. He got the flavors right. Taste tests would frequently select the Popeyes version as the favorite.

In preparation for this column, for two days in a row I had lunch at a neighborhood Popeyes. On the first day I got two pieces of the spicy chicken and the next day, two pieces of regular. Also, on the first day I got two sides: one was Cajun Rice and the other the red beans. As good as the chicken can be, the two rice dishes are extraordinary, especially after I had the idea to mix the two together, creating a red beans and Cajun Rice combo. The world has been waiting for this.

After the second day I could report that the regular chicken is good too, not as overwhelming as the spicy but, still rich with a crunchy fried aroma. I was going to try different sides, but I was so overwhelmed by the Cajun and red beans dish from the previous day that I figured I could not do any better. 

There are other stories about Copeland, including racing boats, Christmas decorations and a squabble about aesthetics with novelist Anne Rice, but it all began with the chicken. Copeland once offered this bit of advice: “Start with determination. Have a road map when you start out. Prepare a plan. Be determined. Don’t let anything stand in your way.”

To that he might have added, and when in doubt, add more spice.