“We kind of instigated this shift where almost everyone in [quick service] suddenly changed how they were doing their chicken sandwich,” she says. “We like to think we set really high standards for ourselves and it was flattering that we established a standard for the industry.”
More recently, focus has turned to what Popeyes’ second act might look like. How can it leverage an indelible moment in fast-food history into something more lasting?
As the brand became, “quote end quote hot,” Siddiqui says, investor and franchisee demand popped across the globe. Prospective operators wanted in. Current ones wanted more. In fact, for many years, the brand didn’t have new franchisees entering the system. Today, there’s a waiting list, he says.
Siddiqui, formerly president of parent company Restaurant Brand International’s Asia-Pacific region before joining Popeyes in September 2020, led the launch of the brand in China and the Philippines. In both cases, he says, lines of four, five, even seven hours, snaked around openings. “I think part of that—much of that—is rooted in having an unbeatable product,” he says. “But also, a lot of the momentum we’ve seen here [in the U.S.].”
It’s a simple formula with wide-ranging implications: as Popeyes turns 50, people are talking about the brand more than ever.
In 2021, it crossed the 3,000-unit mark in the U.S. and Canada. Popeyes signed more development agreements around the world than at any other point in its history. It’s headed to India, the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Romania, France, South Korea, and, naturally, to more markets in the U.S., Mexico, and RBI’s Canadian base.
In guest surveys, which the brand hosts routinely, it asks consumers what their barriers to trial consideration for Popeyes are. “And what they always say is … actually convenience,” he says. “There’s just not a Popeyes close enough to me. And we think that is a huge opportunity.”
“I view that as my obligation—to build more Popeyes,” Siddiqui adds.
Just charting overseas, there are “a couple hundred” Popeyes in Asia today. Twenty-six percent of KFC’s total system sales stem from China alone. Yum!’s chicken giant has 26,934 restaurants, and only 3,953 of those are in the U.S.
“I think that highlights what the whitespace opportunity is out there,” Siddiqui says.
In many ways, Popeyes’ chicken sandwich gave RBI a trigger point it had been searching for in regard to the brand. On March 27, 2017, RBI acquired Popeyes for $1.8 billion. It was a significant move because it secured the Burger King and Tim Hortons owner (it now directs Firehouse Subs as well) a serious stake in chicken.
From acquisition to 2020, RBI posted cumulative net restaurant growth of 27 percent at Popeyes. As noted, 2021 represented the highest number of openings yet as the brand closed the calendar with 3,705 restaurants globally—a net of 254 stores, or unit growth of 7.4 percent. That total breaks down to 2,754 U.S. locations (net of 146 restaurants) and 951 international outlets (net of 108 restaurants).
“We’re just scratching the surface on opportunities for Popeyes,” RBI CEO Jose Cil said in February. “And I firmly believe that the brand is poised to become one of the fastest growing in the industry.”
Come year-end 2020, Popeyes exited as the country’s second-largest chicken chain, just ahead of Chick-fil-A and about 1,300 units behind KFC. After Wingstop, which had more than 1,500 stores and continues to grow, recently upping its global target to 7,000 total stores, Church’s Chicken (913 units), Zaxby’s (905), and Bojangles (758) neared the three-digit club. Raising Cane’s (509) and El Pollo Loco (482) were climbing, too.
But as crowded as this category has stuffed, Siddiqui says, Popeyes doesn’t have any trouble standing out. It’s as much a race for access as anything else.