Overall, the Popeyes story tells us something critical. There is room to rise above the plateau in this pandemic world, with the right systems in place. Product innovation, although a back-burner priority for many during these survival months, has the potential to awaken dormant customers.
And as good as the sandwich might be, it didn’t disrupt fast-food pop culture due to its quality. Popeyes’ social strategy struck a vein in the gold mine. It might not be easy to reach customers today in this setting, but the payoff is there for the taking.
Popeyes is also starting to spread the frenzy globally. The chain’s Canadian wing—RBI is actually headquartered in Toronto—announced earlier in the week it was preparing to pilot the sandwich in Alberta this month. It’s headed to Edmonton, Red Deer, and Grande Prairie before rolling to Windsor and London.
The schedule itself is dependent on COVID-19 conditions and reopenings. Popeyes plans to launch the sandwich across the entire Canadian market in the fall.
It’s been a multi-month process. The Financial Post said Popeyes’ Canada team worked with RBI’s Miami office “for months” to create a replica of the sandwich The New Yorker called “the best goddamn chicken sandwich in the world.” Popeyes took this route because it would be more cost effective than importing from the chain’s U.S. suppliers, and avoid tariffs and the “volatility of foreign exchange,” Popeyes GM in Canada, Rob Manuel, told the publication.
Back in January, the team thought it was close to reproducing the sandwich. Manuel said Popeyes’ executives tested every ingredient, taking sips of water in between bites.
Originally, Popeyes expected to test in Canada in April, but was knocked off schedule by the pandemic.
This pilot isn’t like other product launches, however. Due to the American phenomenon, Popeyes is using the Edmonton trial not as a gauge to see if it should go national—but to get a better sense of just how popular it’s really going to be. Amy Alarcon, the chef who heads Popeyes’ U.S. team, told the Financial Post, “We have to be ready for the onslaught.”
According to the story, Popeyes started reaching out to different Canadian suppliers last December. It talked to makers over pickles, mayo, buttermilk, chicken, and buns. One by one. The Canadian sandwich will import chicken from U.S. suppliers. The pickles are fresh, barrel-cured, and cut into quarter-inch slices.
The chicken is a “full muscle product,” not a press-and-form chicken patty. The company, the Financial Post said, is still look to arrange Canadian supply deals before launching nationally. If not, it could face hefty import tariffs.
One noticeable difference between the sandwiches: Popeyes in the U.S. offers an original with pickles and mayo, as well as a spicy version. The Canadian test will also feature a deluxe edition with lettuce and tomato after consumer research showed lettuce and tomato to be a must.
Why is all this effort worth it? While Popeyes’ U.S. same-store sales jumped 29.2 percent in Q1, it’s “rest of world” comps rose just 2.4 percent. On a total systemwide sales basis, the numbers were 35.9 and 9.2 percent, respectively.
Of Popeyes 3,336 global restaurants, 2,494 are located stateside. The “rest of world” count, however, is up to 842 from 763 in the same period last year. And RBI, on a handful of occasions, has spoken to Popeyes’ overseas whitespace, a possibility humming in the background ever since it acquired the chain for $1.8 billion in March 2017. Former CEO and current chairman Daniel Schwartz once noted the company would “establish partnership to meaningfully accelerate net restaurant growth for Popeyes, including through new international master franchise agreements.”
In 2018, RBI signed its first international master franchise deal for Popeyes in Brazil and the Philippines. Schwartz said these kind of deals had the potential to set the chain “up to be one of the fastest growing, global [quick-service restaurant] brands in the world.”
And this was all before the chicken sandwich. Now, it might just be the key to actually turning that aim into reality.