Growing up in southern Louisiana, Popeyes Fried Chicken was always a staple in our house (or trailer). The humidity of the Deep South always complimented their perfectly spiced chicken and fluffy biscuits. When I was a kid, the restaurant still had the rights from King Features Syndicate to use the Popeye cartoon character in their branding. I remember seeing Popeye’s iconic visage peaking from the box, with “LOVE THAT CHICKEN” in bold red letters.
The complexity of capitalism is wrapped up in every crunchy morsel of Popeyes’ story—the good, bad, and greasy. It was born out of the archetypal rags to riches story, the sort of tale defenders of capitalism love to tell. But with the latest acquisition by Burger King, we see the cancerous growth of late capitalism—when a few companies devour everything in their path, like rabid hyenas feasting on the scraps of a diseased corpse.
Founded by a Po’ Boy
Popeyes was started by a po’ boy in New Orleans named Al Copeland. Copeland was a flamboyant, bombastic figure—not unlike our current president. The difference is that while Trump was born into money, Copeland was genuinely nouveau riche. Shortly after Al was born, his father left home. His mother struggled to make ends meet, and the family lived in public housing and relied on welfare. He dropped out of high school at 16, and opened a Tastee Donut franchise a couple of years later.
Copeland’s first chicken restaurant—Chicken on the Run—was opened in 1971. It closed shortly and reopened in 1972 as Popeyes Mighty Good Fried Chicken. Copeland later claimed he was too poor to afford an apostrophe. Copeland claimed he didn’t name the restaurant after the cartoon character, but was inspired by the lead character from the movie The French Connection—Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle.
Al Copeland became a local celebrity, the four-time divorcee who was known for his Disney-style mansion in the white flight exurbs of Metarie. It became a Christmas wonderland, with 10,000 white roses, a snow machine, and four upside down Christmas Trees.
Copeland was a man of spectacle, and conflict—he once got into a fist fight with a rival. One of his last big controversies was a dispute with Anne Rice of Interview With a Vampire fame. He opened a gaudy New Orleans restaurant in a former car dealership, where Rice’s character Lestat disappeared in her novel. She called his display of gold panther statues, metallic palm trees, and slowly lights “a monstrosity.” Copeland fought back, saying that he would put more garlic in the dishes to fend off her vampires.
He loved speedboats, Lamborghinis, and custom Jaguars. But life catches up with even the speediest—Copeland died of a malignant salivary gland tumor in 2008. He was 64. He had built a family tomb of 14 caskets, with fluted columns and a bronze double door.
Expansion, While Keeping the Taste
In Popeyes’ early days, Copeland realized that mild fried chicken wasn’t cutting it. Sales were slow, so he had to jazz it up. They soon offered a spicier alternative to satisfy New Orleanians spoiled by the Mecca of culinary choices. Even the poor man in New Orleans eats better than the well-heeled Midwesterner.
The spicier chicken caught on, and Copeland soon expanded to Baton Rouge. B.P. Newman of Laredo, Texas brought franchises in Texas and beyond (states around Texas). Copeland hit rough times as growth slowed in the early 90’s. In 1991 his company filed for bankruptcy protection, as Al was $391 million in debt.
A Court approved a plan by Copeland’s creditors for the formation of America’s Favorite Chicken Company, Inc. (AFC). AFC became the parent company of both Popeyes and Church’s, which was started in San Antonio. AFC went public in 2001 with an initial public offering of over $142 million. With AFC, Popeyes hit the big leagues.
So far, Popeyes has managed to maintain quality control during its growth. After Copeland’s death, Popeyes eventually re-acquired full control of its seasonings. They recently remodeled many of their restaurants and upped their national advertising, which includes chef Annie, the “Chicken Queen.”
Kentucky-based Yum Brands owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC. KFC had a dip starting in 2014, but has revved back up with their bizarre Colonel Sanders commercials. But Yum’s overall revenues have dipped as people have turned away from Pizza Hut. This has left an opening for another multinational to swoop in and buy KFC’s competitor.
Burger King Buys Popeyes. Why?!?
In another sign of Trump’s dystopia, Restaurant Brands International Inc.—owner of Burger Kings and Tim Hortons chains—has bought Popeyes for $1.8 billion in cash. This Canadian multinational will now spread Popeyes across the globe (globalism!).
Time will tell how Popeyes will be affected by this. There was a deal with their spice supplier—Diversified Foods & Seasonings—to be their main source for seasoning until 2029. Maybe this is a sign that Popeyes tasty batter and wondrous fried will remain untouched for the time being.
But I’m skeptical. I haven’t eaten Burger King for years, but found their burgers horribly generic, and their fries flavorless and dull. One look at their social media reveals such abominations as Jalapeño Chicken Fries and onion rings that look like they belong in an underfunded school cafeteria.
The news didn’t fly to well on Twitter:
damn burger king really bought popeyes. welcome to trump's america i guess pic.twitter.com/Kd7ReSlkAZ
— mewtwo was right (@thoneycombs) February 21, 2017
Us Black people when we heard Burger King bought Popeyes pic.twitter.com/lxHyoqwq35
— j (@JUSTlNW) February 21, 2017
"Welcome to Popeyes would you like to try the Triple whopper combo?" pic.twitter.com/L0Cn5bGlNW
— Jackets and Joggers (@herfavoriteogre) February 21, 2017
I SWEAR IF POPEYES CHICKEN TASTE EVEN THE SLIGHTEST BIT DIFFERENT pic.twitter.com/SDvXq0DHYq
— キラー・ウチハ (@asvpxckat) February 21, 2017
Burger King buying Popeyes is a threat to national security. pic.twitter.com/6iQjL1SK8D
— MistyKnightsTwistOut (@Steph_I_Will) February 21, 2017
Oh MY GWAD BURGER KING JUST BOUGHT POPEYES!!! pic.twitter.com/tUehpAFCk0
— Gazi Kodzo (@GaziKodzo) February 22, 2017
Hopefully they will take a hands-off approach. Then again, that was the plan when Yahoo purchased Tumblr, and that didn’t turn out too well.
Which leads us to the perils of late capitalism, where our national god eats itself and craps all over the carpet.
This is Just Another Example of Why Capitalism Sucks
Conservatives love to talk about a golden age of stability, where the mom and pop stores flourished and there was a sense of community. Part of this is naive nostalgia—American life was hardly ideal, especially not for many Americans. But there was less disruption among established communities, ways of life, and even small businesses. This is because government curtailed the worse excesses of capitalism.
Now we have multinational corporations that gobble up everything in their path, like an evil Pacman in a warped, sadistic arcade game. This is a byproduct of neoliberal capitalism, which was especially spearheaded by Ronald Reagan, and adapted by even the Democratic Party.
The denizens of Silicon Valley romanticize ‘disruption,’ as companies rupture entire industries, as Uber did with the Taxi industry. For the average citizen, there’s nothing romantic about this disruption. It affects our jobs, our environment, and even our chicken.
Capitalism has always been king in America, but at least many of the early progressives worked hard to minimize the damage it caused. Franklin Roosevelt’s administration decentralized the power of industry, busting monopolies and assuring farmers and small shop owners a decent living. It’s now to the perilous point where large corporations hold large influence over congress.
In a speech to congress on curbing monopolies, F.D.R. said this:
The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism—ownership of Government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.
The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living.
Ever the eager capitalist, Al Copeland may have been fine with a huge multinational buying his company. But regulations often protected the quality of communities, goods, and even small businesses by keeping them small.
And it may have kept chicken good too. Man, I know way too much about fried chicken.