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What do you see as being some of the biggest trends in the quick-serve industry when it comes to chicken menu items?
There’s a great thing about working with chicken. Of course it’s economical, but it’s such a great neutral palette that you can apply so many different flavors to it. I don’t think Southern food and comfort food are going anywhere. For a brand like Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, that certainly gives us a lot of liberties to really play up that aspect of it.
In quick service, chicken often shows up in sandwiches or wraps. What are some of the things that have come through the pipeline at Popeyes?
We’ve done well in the boneless category. We have a lot of fun with it. We really tried on purpose to stay away from what I call very ubiquitous items—nuggets and strips and things like that. With the Louisiana roots, we have a lot of liberties to highly season, to add a lot of dimension and complexity of flavor. Then we try to do something a little different: a really unique cut, seasoning, batters, and breaders. Chicken is one of those things in which we don’t believe in the concept of freezer to fryer. We fry things exceptionally well. That’s what we do. When it comes to hand-battering in every restaurant, that’s how we have a lot of fun with these different cuts, flavors, and appearances.
Can you give me an example of how you’re having fun with it?
When we talk about our limited-time offers (LTOs), we take a no-holds-barred approach. If we can convince someone to make a unique cut for us, we will.
Probably the most unique was Rip’n Chick’n. We wanted something really interactive because I do think people like to play with their food, and then the dipping component with great sauces is the other thing we like to play with. To me, it’s almost like a food and wine pairing. That sauce is equally important as the chicken itself.
With something like Rip’n Chick’n that has a spicy and well-rounded flavor profile—it’s got habanero and jalapeño and cayenne pepper—it also has a unique cut where you’ve got essentially pull-apart fingers. The chicken breast we leave intact at the bottom and then cut basically little fingers into it, so you get this kind of interactive pull-apart activity, almost like a blooming onion.
How does health factor into chicken development?
We have blackened tenders available at every restaurant. We also have an awesome green bean dish that’s in a turkey bacon gravy; that does really well. We have a pretty thorough protocol of how we develop products. We do tons of consumer research. We’re always out there asking our guests what they want. What you see wind up as an LTO or on the menu, that’s a direct reflection of all those conversations we’ve had with our customers, and that’s a reflection of what they want from us.
What kind of outside-the-box ingredients work well with chicken?
We like our spices. We’re not afraid to put some interesting combinations together. I really like to play with not just a typical cayenne pepper. We’ve had a few products where we’ve worked with some of the hot sauce suppliers like Tabasco and Bruce Foods, who makes Louisiana Hot Sauce. We did a product a couple years ago called Wicked Chicken. One of the key ingredients was basically the pepper that’s a byproduct when you make Louisiana Hot Sauce. That’s one of those unknown ingredients out there that’s great to play with when you want to get that fermented aged pepper taste.
We’re always looking at sourcing different flavors from around the globe. We’re a global brand; we’re in 26 countries around the world. We really try to be first out there with some of these fuller unique pepper flavors.
What do you foresee for the future of chicken at Popeyes?
For us, we can’t develop products fast enough. Customers want more and more innovation, and I think they look to us for that. It doesn’t really matter what part of the country you’re in. We like to say we’re taking people on a stay-cation; you don’t actually have to get on an airplane or drive too far to get the flavor of the South and Louisiana.
One of the things we do when we’re having fun and we’re being playful, we also want to make sure we have that authentic nod to our roots.