Through a mouthful of food, hip-hop mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs delivers his review: “Popeyes has a certain type of fried chicken, nicely golden brown, juicy type of flavor to it.” His YouTube competition between KFC and Popeyes has already been viewed 78,529 times (plus twice more during the creation of this article), and nearly 1,000 viewers have left their own reviews. Couple that with Popeyes’ more than 46,000 fans on Facebook and its 6,000 followers on Twitter, and there’s enough chicken chatter to fill each seat in Chicago’s Soldier Field—twice.
But consumers aren’t the only ones who take their fried chicken seriously. Amy Alarcón, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen’s director of culinary innovation, has made it her job to ensure the brand is seen within the industry as a legitimate Cajun player.
Her years of experience with Arby’s, Taco Cabana, and Church’s Chicken—“I came through it the hard way of 14- and 16-hour days in the kitchen,” she says—make her an industry veteran and have armed her with the expertise of developing recipes that can be repeated by hundreds of franchisees.
“A lot of people sell fried chicken, but we do something that I think they can’t, which is a very recipe-driven product development process,” she says.
The company’s newfound focus on flavor profiles and Cajun product offerings was thrust to the forefront in the summer of 2008 when the company underwent huge changes. No longer called Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, the fried chicken chain changed its marketing, its logo, and its focus. While some within the industry saw the departure of Billy Jacob, the company’s long-time director of culinary development and genuine Cajun chef, confusing, Alarcón’s move into the brand’s product development driver’s seat brought the launches of the Popeyes Shrimp Tackle Box, Big Easy Bowl, and Loaded Chicken Wrap.
“It’s not that I have guardrails or a certain box that I have to play in, but I have at my disposal probably the most dominant and greatest food history of American regional cuisine,” she says of her laser-like focus on Cajun culinary.
While the heritage of Louisiana food is rich with spices, color, and Creole influences, Alarcón’s challenges as a quick-serve culinary executive remain fundamental—how to fill missing dayparts and how her recipes can be recreated at the brand’s nearly 2,000 stores.
As a result, while Top Chef–style novices open stores offering Kobe beef and artisan cheese, she is focused on results. “You can’t start with a brainstorming process, you’ve got to start with a strategy first,” she says of her menu-innovation process. “The world’s full of a million ideas, but if you have an idea without a strategy, it’s not going to go very far.”
“The challenge with the Big Easy Bowl was to take the most famous recipes that we have at Popeyes—we like to consider the red beans and rice as somewhat of a cult favorite for side items—and make a full meal out of it. Yet make it portable and make it affordable.
“So we came up with a Big Easy Bowl, which has a base of red beans and rice and then we take our chicken, the bone-in fried chicken, and we pull the meat off the bone and we toss it in a fantastic Cajun gravy that’s full of bell peppers and pesto and all kinds of wonderful flavors and textures. And then we mix all that together, we put it over the red beans and rice, and we top it with a little shredded cheddar and jack cheese just to give it a little more richness. On the side we give you packets of Louisiana hot sauce and sour cream to kind of balance it out. A little bit of extra heat if you so desire and then the cooling effect of the sour cream to kind of bring it all together.”
Alarcón is a culinary realist. She factors in proposed price points, food costs, prep times, and dayparts to create menu items that have staying power in the new brand. “You can’t just run off and start developing a bunch of products,” she says.
Although it’s clear nothing scares her in the kitchen, Alarcón did open up about two of the biggest issues facing the company—KFC’s new grilled chicken and the impending sodium crackdown facing quick serves.
Too smart to even say her competitor’s name during the interview, Alarcón admits that when she first heard of its foray into grilling, “I think everybody stopped for a moment and said, ‘OK, should we be considering this?’” Instead of playing catch-up, she has focused her efforts on overcoming the Popeyes Paradox—bringing slow-cooked food to consumers fast.
“The paradox, of course, is that behind the scenes in the back of the house, there’s a fair bit of labor and preparation to get it to that point [at the counter],” she says. “Obviously, being in a fried-food venue helps a lot because it’s already staged, it’s already prepared, and we’re just ready to fill the order when people come in.”
On the sodium front, she describes the task of lowering the amount of salt in the brand’s products as “a great challenge,” comparing it to solving a mystery. As the brand’s Sherlock Holmes, Alarcón is actively working with the company’s suppliers, putting pressure on them to find out how to deliver the flavor profile the company has so confidently championed but in a lower-sodium format.
“It’s incredibly important to maintain flavor,” she says. “That’s what people expect from us. You can get fried chicken from a lot of different places, but in order to call it a Popeyes product, it has to have that slowly saturated, marinated flavor that we provide.”
But at times that flavor can pose operational challenges. Few consumers know that the brand marinates its fried menu items for at least 12 hours before they are hand battered and hand breaded—all in the store. And menu extensions like the newly introduced crawfish require entirely separate stations for preparation in the kitchen’s small footprint.
“There’s a lot of handwork and a lot of hand preparation, then you’re letting it sit and steep in the flavors and the seasonings in the cooler,” Alarcón says. “But we try to have the product up and ready when you walk in the door, so that we can very quickly service your order.”
That’s why the company calls it a paradox.
Unfortunately, Popeyes has more than just small footprints and quick service times to contend with—it also has to educate consumers about all that goes into creating its products. In an age when the quick-service industry seems to be dividing into two camps—smaller chains that offer healthy, local, organic, high-priced menu options and large, national chains that deliver consistent, traditional, cost-efficient foods—Popeyes is finding it falls somewhere in between.
“We start with chicken that’s 100 percent natural, bring it into the restaurant, it’s not injected, there’s not salt water added or phosphate,” she says, prefacing the explanation by saying Popeyes goes against the industry grain and doesn’t boast about the quality of its chicken. “We bring it into the restaurant and we marinate it by hand.”
These steps seem simple enough, but when repeated thousands of times a day across the U.S. and 26 countries, it’s clear why convincing consumers that Popeyes is just as authentic as fried chicken on Bourbon Street might be difficult. Marketing executives have tackled that challenge by launching a new spokeswoman for the brand. “Annie the Chicken Queen” is a sassy, tell-it-like-it-is marketing tactic to give consumers straight talk about the new brand.
“The Crawfish is one of those products that is such a truly unique product that no one else is going to do anything like that, and I think it’d be kind of odd for other brands to consider a product of that nature. It’s truly a very adventurous food item that’s very believable from Popeyes.
“It’s another one of those products that we bring in. We marinate it fresh in the restaurant, then again it’s hand battered and breaded. We have to set up a whole separate batter and breading station for this, which in a limited footprint can be a challenge, but our operators pull it off beautifully.”
Alarcón, on the other hand, chooses to stay focused on the food, making training those in the stores’ kitchens a top priority. “We work diligently with the training department to make sure the message gets out there through written materials,” she says. “We do a lot of work with videos to teach people how to make products.”
Keeping steps simple and instructions clear are keys to Alarcón’s menu success. When asked if she’s ever created a recipe that was too intricate to be rolled out, she laughs. “Of course, that’s part of just good product development—trying to make things easily communicated,” she says.
That’s not to say that Alarcón doesn’t tap into new culinary trends or keep an eye on emerging influences. “Street food is coming up fast and furious,” she says of the trends she’s watching. The Los Angeles Kogi Korean BBQ concept, a mobile Asian-fusion quick serve headed by young star chef Roy Choi, is the one other brand besides Popeyes that she mentions in the entire interview.
“Street food has been around for a long time, that’s what tacos are, what sandwiches are, but suddenly someone has given the category a great name and a great positioning to talk about it,” she says.
Another trend, one that fits better with Popeyes’ offerings, is the consumer’s interest in comfort food. “We’re in a sweet spot right now to begin with because comfort food is the cuisine of 2010,” she says. “If you ask 10 people in a room, eight of them are going to put some variation of fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese, those types of products in their top 10 list of comfort foods. So we’re already there, it’s the nature of our concept.”
While surely the brand will not stray too far from its roots, Alarcón does let on that she has a few tricks up her chef coat’s sleeve. “I can’t tell you because we keep working on it, and I’m hoping that you’ll be featuring it a year from now when it’s been hugely successful,” she says of the mysterious menu innovation.
When pressed for hints, she says the product is meant to address some of the brand’s more recent menu challenges: rounding out its chicken lineup, offering single-user menu options, and reminding consumers of the brand’s ability to make traditional foods with a Louisiana twist.
One trend the brand is unlikely to capitalize on in the near future is the consumer’s obsession with local offerings. Although Popeyes has a local favorites menu at some stores, logistically tapping into the local food movement would be nearly impossible for the national chain. “It’s definitely on our radar, but it’s such a challenge for the volume of food that we require to make a product successful and available all over the country,” she says.
What’s also on Alarcón’s radar that the brand is tapping into is customization. Popeyes offers several condiments and dips, including a Confetti Sweet and Sour Sauce, which is different from a traditional sweet and sour sauce because of its pepper jelly base, to give consumers control over the flavor profile and heat intensity of their own meals. “We just launched the Delta Sauce with the new menu repositioning,” she says. “It’s a cream base with dill relish, Creole mustard, a little chipotle pepper, a little cayenne pepper, and it’s all tied together in a wonderful base.”
With this type of control, Alarcón hopes consumers feel comfortable trying new foods, like Cajun offerings, that might not have traditionally been their first pick. Her encouragement in adventurous dining comes from being a mother of two daughters. “I’m encouraging them to have a very open mind, taste everything, try everything, you don’t have to eat it but at least try it,” she says of her girls—a lesson that’s “exactly” like what she’s trying to teach consumers.
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