There’s no shortage of fast food fried chicken out there, but in most people’s minds, only two are in the big leagues: Kentucky Fried Chicken and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. While KFC has turned its Southern-style chicken into a huge success, Popeyes made a name for itself by being more specific in its Southernness: namely, Louisiana. It’s hard to argue with traditional Cajun dishes and flavorings, and it’s equally hard to argue that Popeyes’ spins on spicy fried chicken, po’ boys, red beans and rice, and jambalaya aren’t a welcome reprieve from the usual ho-hum fast food offerings. But we bet that there’s a lot about Popeyes that you don’t know!
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When Al Copeland first opened his fried chicken restaurant, the name wasn’t Popeyes; it was Chicken on the Run. The name wasn’t changed until a few months later.
While the chain may have been associated with Popeye the Sailor Man for decades, Copeland claimed that the name was inspired by a slightly less famous Popeye: Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, the role famously played by Gene Hackman in the film The French Connection, which was released one year before the restaurant opened.
The first few months were pretty tough for Copeland and Chicken on the Run, but its fortunes turned around once Copeland started offering a second chicken option: the chain’s now-signature spicy Cajun chicken. He closed and reopened with the new chicken and the new name, and the rest is history.
Al Copeland was a real character. Born in 1944, he struck it rich with the success of Popeyes and began really living it up, the New Orleans way. He ran power boat racing teams, held elaborate and expensive weddings (he was married four times), was a tabloid fixture, and every year he’d have his Metairie mansion decorated with the city’s most elaborate Christmas display. He passed away after a battle with cancer in 2008, at age 64.
Copeland didn’t just own Popeyes; he also founded the restaurant chain Copeland’s (which has 20 locations in five Southern states), Copeland’s Cheesecake Bistro (four locations in Georgia and Louisiana), a handful of other restaurants, and three hotels. He also owned The Improv, a legendary comedy club, with locations throughout the country.
Copeland’s company was in default on $391 million in debts by 1991 after a period of over-expansion, and in October 1992 the company emerged from bankruptcy as America’s Favorite Chicken Company, the parent company of Popeyes and Church’s Fried Chicken, which the company also owned at the time.
If you’ve seen any Popeyes commercials lately, you probably spotted the chain’s spokeswoman, dubbed Annie the Chicken Queen and played by actress Deidrie Henry. Introduced in 2008 as part of an overall rebranding effort to associate the chain with New Orleans once again (it was also around this time that the company’s name was changed from Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits to Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen), she sparked a big surge in sales, but some feel that that the character is a racist and stereotypical depiction of a "mammy."
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In certain markets, you can find fried chicken livers and fried gizzards on the menu. Be careful if you decide to order the livers, though: It’s the unhealthiest menu item the chain offers, with 1,190 calories, 80 grams of fat, and a whopping 765 milligrams of cholesterol.