What you should know before eating at Popeyes again

For anyone who loves fried chicken — and who doesn't — Popeyes might be as close as we can hope to get to heaven while still on earth. They're known for their deliciously, consistently crunchy skin, their New Orleans-inspired flavor, and their sides that are so good, you could make a meal of them alone. Just looking at pictures of their fried chicken is enough to get your mouth watering, and it doesn't take much to get stalwart fans craving a fix. And if you haven't been there, you should start making plans to get to one soon.

But, what should you know before you go there? Whether you make it a regular stop in your fast food rotation, if you've never been there before, or if all this hype around their new chicken sandwich is reminding you that you need to go back, there are some things you should know before you follow that smell of frying chicken and head right into Popeyes.

Popeyes chicken is definitely unhealthy

Fried chicken is one of those things that should be considered more of a treat than a regular menu staple, and everyone knows it's not the healthiest chicken option out there. But when it comes to Popeyes, there's bad news for fans — it's particularly bad. 

Let's take just a few examples, starting with their chicken sandwich. One of Popeyes' new and insanely popular sandwiches comes with a shocking 690 calories, 42 grams of fat, and 1,443 mg of sodium. That just sounds terrible, and it is. It's made even worse when you compare that to Chick-fil-A's chicken sandwich, which comes with 440 calories, 19 grams of fat, and 1,350 mg of sodium. Nutritionists that spoke with Healthline stressed that neither of these are actually good for you, but the numbers show that one's definitely better than the other... nutrition-wise, at least. 

Now, let's say you want some fries to go with that. Ask for a large order of Cajun fries at Popeyes and you'll have a side that's 770 calories, 41 grams of fat, and 1,700 mg of sodium. Go for a large order of Chick-fil-A's waffle fries, and you'll be adding on 460 calories, 24 grams of fat, and just 370 grams of sodium. It's definitely something to keep in mind when you're stepping up to order... and factoring in what you're going to eat for the rest of the day.

Be careful with those biscuits from Popeyes

It's a pretty standard thing to order when you hit any fast food joint: an entree, some fries, and a drink. The extras are just that — extras — and you might not think twice about throwing on some sides. But if you're watching your waistline, you should know that Popeyes' sides can be downright dangerous. 

Especially when it comes to those biscuits, because who can eat just one? Unfortunately, all that goodness comes with 260 calories, 15 grams of fat, and 450 mg of sodium. Per biscuit! To put that in perspective, you'd only have to eat three biscuits to hit the American Heart Association's guidelines for how much sodium you should ideally have in a single day.

And that's not even the only horrible choice you can make. Throw on a large red beans and rice, and you're getting 690 calories and 1,740 mg of sodium. Think cole slaw is going to be at least decent? The large there comes with 660 calories and 900 mg of sodium. The moral of the story is that as tempting as it might be, you probably don't want to order everything you think you want from Popeyes... at least, not in a single trip.

Vegans and vegetarians are out of luck at Popeyes

While you might not expect a place known for their fried chicken to have much in the way of options for vegetarians, it's such a popular lifestyle choice that you'd hope they would at least make some things available. There's always a vegetarian or two in a group of friends, and there's no reason they should be left out of lunch. 

But at Popeyes, they pretty much are. According to their FAQ, there are only a few choices for anyone who's looking for cut down on their meat consumption. The only things they say are vegetarian are the cole slaw, the mashed potatoes, and the rice. And here's the important part — that's mashed potatoes only if you skip the gravy, and just the rice — but not the beans. That's... sad. The corn on the cob, mac and cheese, and biscuits are also meat-free. 

Why are those the only options? According to Verywell Fit, the green beans are made with turkey bacon, and the red beans are made with pork fat. 

The corn on the cob without butter is the only option for anyone who's vegan. If you have to drag your vegetarian or vegan friend along, at least let them pick the next place — because there's not much at Popeyes for them.

Popeyes' employees have had it rough — so be extra nice to them

When Vox talked to some Popeyes employees in the days around The Great Chicken Sandwich Outage of 2019, they found employees who weren't just exhausted, but who were putting up with more abuse than anyone should have to. 

One manager spent so much time on her feet — working 12-hour days after an employee suddenly quit under the chaotic pressure — that her legs went numb... and feeling didn't come back. Lines were out the door for hours, they weren't able to take breaks or sit down, and when things started running out, people got angry. Customers yelled and screamed and some even threatened to come back with guns. 

And some did. According to The Guardian, police were called to a Popeyes in Houston in September of 2019 after a man pulled a gun on the drive-thru employee who told him they were sold out of chicken sandwiches. The group of three men and two women then left their baby in the car and tried to force their way into the restaurant — which employees fortunately had time to lock. Then, NBC reported that a Tennessee man actually filed a lawsuit against Popeyes for running out of chicken sandwiches (he claimed he was hustled by a Craigslist ad that promised sandwiches, then damaged his car while driving to various locations... then suffered emotional distress when his friends laughed at him). 

So seriously, when you go there, cut them some slack. They've been through a lot.

You definitely need to try the Cajun Sparkle

Go ahead, ask for extra — it's behind the counter. Even if there's nothing else on your must-have list for Popeyes, Cajun Sparkle should definitely be there. It's the thing that elevates fried chicken into something you just know came right out of New Orleans, and according to First We Feast, it's the secret ingredient that kept chefs like Anthony Bourdain going back for more. 

Just how important is it? When Popeyes founder Al Copeland traded his donut stand for a fried chicken stand in 1972, he just did so-so. When he switched up the spice, though, that's when things really took off. It was so important to him that when he finally sold the chain, his Cajun spice wasn't a part of the deal. He continued to charge Popeyes a licensing fee to use the signature seasoning for more than 20 years, until 2014. That's when they paid a shocking $43 million just for the rights to the spice blend

And here's the brilliant thing — you can ask for extra packets of it, so there's nothing keeping you from stashing some to take home. Will it make your own fried chicken as good as Popeyes'? Probably not, but it'll make your popcorn seriously stellar.

Yes, Popeyes has a "secret menu"

If you just go to Popeyes and order off the menu, you're not doing it wrong, necessarily, but you're missing out. On what? Some awesome secret menu items. 

One, says Mental Floss, will help you eat a little healthier there. If you ask for your chicken "naked," you'll get it without that signature breading. You'll miss out on the crunch, but if you need your fix it might just be worth it. 

Anything else? Sure is! Oprah Magazine says there are a few tricks you need to know. Order a side of gravy, and use it over your Cajun fries or over your rice for seriously next-level sides. Want a different way to enjoy that crispy chicken skin? Peel it off, fill it with your rice or beans and your shredded chicken, then fold it into a taco. Best tortilla ever? Possibly!

There's a super simple way to order yourself a tasty and unique dessert, too. Ask for a bit of cinnamon sugar on the side, and order an extra biscuit. Sprinkle for something that's buttery, sweet, and savory all in one, and that's the perfect way to end the meal.

There are things that Popeyes' employees recommend you don't order

It's no secret that employees see things that customers never do, so what do they have to say when it comes to what you shouldn't order? 

There are a few things some Popeyes employees have warned customers about. According to one employee doing a IAmA Reddit thread, it was their experience that spicy chicken didn't sell as quickly as the regular, and would tend to sit longer than the 30-minute time limit that was supposed to be implemented. They said the same thing of the fish, noting that it just wasn't popular enough to sell out quickly. 

Another employee warned of another item: the mac and cheese. While they said other sides like the red beans and rice were usually super fresh, the mac and cheese was of questionable consistency — especially given the price tag attached to it. 

So, here's the next question: when is the best time to go to make sure you're getting the freshest chicken? Is there such a time? Yes, according to one Redditor, who says customers should come either right when the restaurant opens, around 2 p.m., or around 5 p.m. That's when chicken has the biggest turnover, and that's good information to know.

Some of Popeyes' sauces are terrible for you

If you're looking for a good way to help yourself feel not so guilty after your trip to Popeyes, there's actually something super simple you can do to save yourself a ton of fat and calories: skip the sauces, or at least choose wisely. 

Some of them are pretty bad, especially considering you're probably not just using one packet, are you? You're probably using two or three, and they'll add up quick. 

Take the tartar sauce. That comes with 140 calories and 15 grams of fat per packet! Prefer ranch? That's got 150 calories and 15 grams of fat, too. Each one of those is almost on par with having a whole biscuit, and that's just crazy. Then plan on using a few, and you're piling on a ton of empty fat and calories. 

Fortunately, there's good news. The sweet heat only has 70 calories and it's fat free, so if you need to get your sauce fix, you can opt for that one and know you're choosing wisely. 

Popeyes is behind in their antibiotics policies

If you're concerned about how your food is sourced, there's something you need to know about Popeyes: they've been consistently behind the times when it comes to sourcing their chickens under guidelines of responsible antibiotic use. 

For many people, that's a huge deal. The use of antibiotics in livestock is controversial, and research points to the fact that prolonged overuse interferes with the effectiveness of antibiotics and the resistance of microbes they fight. Does that concern you? It should, scientists say. 

And in that case, you might want to rethink Popeyes. According to Consumer Reports, 13 major chains had put policies and practices in place around their sourcing by late 2019, and four more were in the process of putting guidelines in place. Several — including Popeyes — had yet to even write a policy.  

And it's a big deal. When Restaurant Brands International bought Popeyes in 2017, Fortune spoke with experts who hoped it meant they would be making antibiotic-free chicken a priority. Popeyes didn't respond to an inquiry and neither did their parent company, and years later, they're still lagging behind. If it's something that's important to you, you might want to skip Popeyes — or, at least, skip their chicken.