The untold truth of Popeyes

In 2017, Restaurant Brands International — the parent company that owns Tim Hortons and Burger King — bought Popeyes. The announcement sent social media into a tailspin, with people from all walks of life wondering whether or not their beloved franchise was going to change.

The list even included some heavy-hitting celebrities like Beyonce, too. The queen of pop is famously a major fan (as Bloomberg says, she served buckets of Popeyes at her 2008 wedding), but she's not the only one. James Beard nominee and Top Chef contestant Isaac Toups says it's the only fast food he'll eat, and The Daily Beast says other celebrity chefs — like Anthony Bourdain and David Chang — have also publicly hopped on the Popeyes bandwagon.

Toups says it's the love that's put into each piece of Popeyes' chicken that sets it apart from competitors, and they've certainly gone above and beyond for their customers in the past. How? Let's talk Popeyes, and what you might not know about your favorite chicken chain.

It's not that Popeye

The name "Popeye" might conjure up images of spinach and the Sailor Man, but that's not who the chain was named after at all. According to the Sandton Times — a news outlet that reported on the opening of the first Popeyes location in South Africa — the chain was named after the Gene Hackman's fictional detective Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle of the 1970s-era movie The French Connection. At the time the chain was founded in 1972, it wasn't the obscure reference it is today, and it wasn't the first name, either.

Alvin C. Copeland Sr. opened the first location under the name Chicken on the Run. After it struggled along for a few months, he took inspiration from his suburban New Orleans location, replaced his traditional chicken with a spicy version, and re-opened as Popeyes.

And that brings us to another name-related question: shouldn't it be "Popeye's"? It's not, though, and Copeland's explanation for a lack of an apostrophe is just as eccentric as he always was. His oft-told story (via 97.3 The Dawg) is that when he opened that first location, he "was too poor to afford one".

They didn't own their recipe for a long time

McDonald's secret sauce, Arby's Horsey sauce, Coca-Cola's proprietary flavor blend... a lot of companies have their top secret recipes, but strangely, Popeyes didn't own their secret chicken recipe until 2014. How does that even happen?

In the 1990s, Slate says bankruptcy forced a major reorganization of Popeyes. Founder Al Copeland went from CEO to a franchisee, but kept control of the recipes. After his death, the recipes stayed as a part of his estate, and Popeyes needed to fork over $3.1 million a year for royalties. It wasn't until 2014 that they paid Copeland's estate-owned company, Diversified Foods and Seasonings LLC, a whopping $43 million for full rights to the chicken recipes so many people love.

DFS still supplies Popeyes with their spice blend, and interestingly, there's both a "proprietary" blend and that DFS still owns, and "core recipes" that Popeyes now has the rights to. What each of those descriptors applies to remains pretty unclear, but either way, that's some expensive chicken.

What's in their seasoning?

Ask any die-hard Popeyes fan and most will probably say it's that spicy kick to their chicken that makes it so good. If you've ever wondered what makes it just that amount of perfect, you're not the only one.

Todd Wilbur of Top Secret Recipes Unlocked says he's hacked the mystery ingredients of the Cajun Sparkle Seasoning mix, and says a vital part of the recipe is the sometimes controversial MSG. Also in the recipe? Salt, ground black pepper, onion powder, dried sage, paprika, and cayenne pepper.

Genius Kitchen has a knock-off recipe, too, and it's one that includes white pepper and Tabasco sauce as well. That's going to give it a bit of an extra kick, but one recipe reviewer chimed in with their experience as a former employee. They say that one thing most knock-off recipes get wrong is not having enough cayenne pepper, as he remembers the seasoning mix having enough heat that it made his skin burn. He also said those delicious biscuits are delicious for a reason that makes most of us cringe — the recipe was heavy on the shortening. Sometimes, though, it's just worth the sacrifice.

They were accused of animal cruelty

According to Popeyes' official statement on animal cruelty, they make it a point to only source their chickens from suppliers who are in compliance with the animal welfare guidelines put in place by the National Chicken Council. While they say they are constantly reviewing and updating those guidelines with more information as research provides it, not everyone is happy with Popeyes' procedures.

As recently as 2018, AJC was reporting on the animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming and their plans to protest Popeyes over the treatment of the chickens they ultimately serve. The group claimed that Popeyes hadn't been proactive enough in making sure their promises were kept and their sourcing was cruelty-free. Group spokespeople added they simply wanted Popeyes to promise to switch to sourcing only chickens raised in healthy, comfortable situations, a promise they said Popeyes consistently refused to make. As their online petition garnered more than 150,000 signatures, Popeyes refused to answer phone calls and emails or issue a statement responding to the protest.

There have been some bizarre lawsuits

Popeyes has been the target of a few outright bizarre lawsuits, and let's start with November 2016. That's when Mississippi attorney Paul Newton Jr. sued after choking on a piece of chicken because he was forced to eat it without utensils. According to Fortune, Newton says he choked on the chicken and had to undergo emergency surgery to remove a piece from his throat. The Huffington Post says he dropped the suit because of the masses on social media asking him how the heck he thought literally everyone else ate fried chicken.

Then, in 2017, a Texas woman filed a lawsuit claiming eating at Popeyes had given her a case of flesh-eating worms that laid eggs in her intestine and started eating her "from the inside out." Karen Goode was looking for about $1 million in damages, but according to The Washington Post, it was Popeyes who had science on their side. Gwen Pearson, an expert from the entomology department of Purdue, had this to say about the claim: "Nothing about this, biologically, is sound." Popeyes would only comment that they had been working with her for some time, although her claims were completely and 100 percent unfounded.

They got caught in someone else's drama

In 2017, Popeyes was caught in the middle of some restaurant drama that was absolutely not of their own making. It started when one Yelp reviewer posted about his experience at Long Beach's Sweet Dixie Kitchen. Fortune says he claimed he saw some employees walk into the kitchen carrying bags from Popeyes, and when he asked if that's what they were serving, they admitted it was.

The story definitely didn't end there, and not only did the restaurant's owner say they sent for a delivery of Popeyes' chicken twice a day, but justified it in part by adding they didn't have the capability to fry their own. She went on to claim there was nothing wrong with sourcing her chicken from the chain, and pointed out that she sourced her gumbo from a "friend who sells it as [sic] a local farmer's market" (via Munchies). While some people were quick to defend the restaurant and their re-sold Popeyes chicken, others were outraged that the restaurant that advertised they made all their own food was very clearly selling out and buying in.

There are some bizarre urban legends

Popeyes has also been the subject of more than their fair share of urban legends, and let's start with the 2016 claim that a family in Harlem got more than they bargained for when they stopped at their local Popeyes. They said they were served a fried rat with their bucket of chicken, and while Snopes officially labels the status as "unproven," they also say it's a very similar claim to a group of urban legends so common they've got a name: Kentucky Fried Rat.

There are stranger ones, too. In 2017, a fake news site circulated the story that one particular location had found a new way to keep their customers coming back for chicken: they laced it with cocaine. It was a satire site, but according to the Compton Herald, many of the people who saw it on social media didn't realize that — proof it's always good to read the fine print.

They had a massive turn-around

Copeland passed away in 2008, and at the time, it had been about 15 years since he'd handed the reins to his successor. But QSR Magazine says the announcement of his death seemed like just one more blow to the brand that was seriously struggling. It had fallen a long way since the 1980s, when it was the third largest chicken-based chain in the country.

Cheryl Bachelder took over managing the chain and franchisees, and if you remember seeing some major changes in things like menus and advertising, it was all a part of her multi-million-dollar overhaul. Fortunately for them (and for their die-hard fans), it worked. Between 2008 and 2016, the number of Popeyes locations went from 1,900 to over 2,500. Franchisee profits increased to a whopping $340,000 per restaurant, and Popeyes stock climbed from $3.50 a share to somewhere around $60. That's a pretty shocking amount of growth, and the fact that it all happened in less than a decade is even more impressive.

They held out on the antibiotic pledges

Antibiotic use in the meat industry is hugely controversial (and we took an in-depth look at this issue here). In a nutshell, heavy use of antibiotics in livestock production has the potential to lead to antibiotic resistance, which might prove deadly in the long run. Watt AG Net took a look at the fast food chains that were making pledges to faze out any and all meat sourced from suppliers that allowed antibiotics to be used solely as a growth hormone, and among the first to step up to the plate were Chick-fil-A, Papa John, and Panera Bread. Not on the list? Popeyes.

That's because it was only in mid-2017 that Popeyes and sister chain Burger King stepped forward to pledge to be antibiotic free by 2018. Food & Wine says the announcement extended to Tim Hortons as well, as it was made by the parent company, not Popeyes individually. In September 2017 the LA Times was reporting on an annual report card handed out by the Natural Resources Defense Council, and said Popeyes shareholders were still in the process of petitioning the company to make good on their promise.

Why did they change their name, anyway?

Long-time Popeyes fans remember when it was called Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits. Today, it's Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, so what's up with that?

According to Nation's Restaurant News, the change came at a time when Popeyes was floundering. Over the course of 10 years, Popeyes turned itself around under the leadership of CEO Cheryl Bachelder, and the first step in the chicken chain's rehabilitation was the name change.

Former chief brand officer Dick Lynch had this to say about it: "When I looked at the amount of labor and precision that went into preparing the food with a unique recipe, we were not getting any credit for any of that. Changing the name and logo was just one step in elevating the brand."

And it was almost something a little different: Popeyes New Orleans Kitchen. While they've been historically more closely associated with New Orleans, Lynch says Louisiana was chosen (after many, many arguments) not just for its close Creole heritage, but also because it allowed them to branch out into other things, like seafood. And that's a win for everyone.

They had some marketing missteps

Popeyes massive rebranding campaign was a huge success, but it wasn't flawless by any means.

Part of the campaign was the creation of a spokesperson: Annie. She was created by ad agency GSD&M, and Popeyes described her (via AdAge) as being the public face of the changes at Popeyes and a person to firmly communicating the fact that they were tapping into their Louisiana roots. But CBS reported that not everyone was thrilled with Annie, a character some saw as more than a little racist.

And if leaks from within the agency are any indication, even the ad agency behind the campaign thought it was racist. They claimed that not only had they protested the campaign, but they had needed to bring in a freelance team to work on it because no one in the creative department of the agency wanted to be connected to a character that offensive. Ouch.

When Jerry Rice appeared in other cringe-worthy Popeyes commercials with chicken wings attached to his helmet (for easy, hands-free access), Atlanta Black Star reported that didn't go over well, either. Marketing missteps, or overreactions from social media?

Why they've resisted getting healthier

It's no secret that people have become more aware of what they're putting in their bodies, and in response, many fast food places have overhauled their menus and made sure to include some healthy options. Even Taco Bell has healthy choices available, but Popeyes is still serving up the same fried chicken.

Check out their Live Well menu, which is their "healthy" menu options under 350 calories. The offerings are pretty sad: a cinnamon apple pie, an order of 2 chicken legs, a chicken thigh, or small order of red beans and rice. Even a single chicken wing will set you back 210 calories, and a hunk of corn on the cob isn't much better with 190 calories. What gives?

According to an interview with CEO Cheryl Bachelder (via Financial Post), they've tried healthier options and they just haven't sold. She explained it like this: "People are eating a lot of baked and broiled chicken at home. ... I like to say we eat boring, healthy food at home, and we eat things like Popeyes when we go out to enjoy a special evening."

There you have it: fried chicken is here to stay.