Albertans will be the first in Canada to sample a fried chicken sandwich that became a social-media sensation with its U.S. debut last summer when Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen adds the menu item to stores in select cities in the province Wednesday.
The menu item generated long lines, supply shortages and — in one case — deadly violence south of the border, but the fried-chicken chain plans for a smoother Canadian launch.
A Canadian trial planned for April was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, since widespread physical distancing precautions seemed out of step with long lines of hungry customers. Popeyes still expects to see high demand, but has implemented safety measures to keep customers and staff healthy while it tests the sandwich in the Edmonton area, before expanding to Ontario and then nationally.
“We’re confident in the measures we have in place,” said Rob Manuel, Popeyes Canada general manager.
When Popeyes launched the sandwich in August 2019, U.S. critics fawned over the fried chicken with pickles and sauce on a brioche bun creation. New Yorker food correspondent Helen Rosner wrote a piece headlined: “The Popeyes chicken sandwich is here to save America.”
Hordes flocked to the chain’s restaurants as reviews of what was dubbed “the sandwich” flooded social media. Some stores ran out of the in-demand product within days, prompting anger and even violence.
In September, police in Houston said a man pulled a gun at a Popeyes restaurant after learning they had sold out of the sandwich. When the manager repeated that they were out of stock, the man left and no one was injured.
On Nov. 4, 2019 — one day after Popeyes started selling the sandwich again — a man in Maryland allegedly stabbed to death a 28-year-old man who police said had been “methodically” cutting in line for the re-released chicken sandwiches for about 15 minutes before the suspect, who was later arrested and charged with murder, confronted him.
The sandwich supercharged Popeyes sales as the chain’s comparable sales, a key retail metric, grew more than 10 per cent in the U.S. for the quarter during which it sold the item as a limited-time summer offer, making it one of the chain’s best quarters in almost two decades.
Popeyes later released the famous menu item in Brazil, China and the Philippines, said Manuel, “so Canada was coming regardless of this” pandemic.
The company initially planned a simultaneous start in Ontario cities London and Windsor, along with Edmonton, but decided to wait. The chain’s parent company, Restaurant Brands International, which also owns Tim Hortons and Burger King, backed that choice.
“We made the conscious decision not to do this back in April because it didn’t … seem like the right thing to do at the time,” said Manuel.
Popeyes decided to limit the initial test to Edmonton, where it has eight restaurants in mostly suburban settings, as well as four others in nearby Red Deer, Grand Prairie, Lloydminster and Fort Saskatchewan.
It chose those cities, in part, because “Alberta is in a — I guess — a more advanced stage of the COVID recovery than some other places in the country,” Manuel said.
The province has allowed restaurant dining rooms to reopen with no capacity limit, but tables must be two-metres apart or separated with a barrier, and no more than six people can sit at one table.
In the province, people seem to feel more comfortable visiting restaurants, said Manuel.
Most of the company’s restaurants there also have drive-thrus, he noted, which would help with physical distancing.
Popeyes expects most people eager to try the sandwich will drive to these locations, which along with delivery options should limit lines outside the store.
Still, it placed physical distancing markers in and outside the restaurants to help manage any lines, he said. Other health and safety measures include staff wearing face masks and gloves, and installing acrylic screens.
Popeyes plans to expand the test to London and Windsor next, and is eyeing a national launch at its 218 restaurants across Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. in the fall.
But that depends on a couple of things, Manuel said, including where the country is in terms of the coronavirus.
When London and Windsor enter the third stage of Ontario’s reopening plan, he said, Popeyes will have a better idea of a pilot timeline for those regions.
In Alberta, Popeyes also will offer a deluxe version of the chicken sandwich, which includes lettuce and tomato.
— With files from The Associated Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 17, 2020.
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Aleksandra Sagan, The Canadian Press