May 17, 2022

Popeyes at 50 has never looked so good

“We kind of brought about this change where almost everyone in [quick service] suddenly changed the way they made their chicken sandwich,” she says. “We like to think we set very high standards for ourselves and it was flattering that we set a standard for the industry.”

More recently, attention has turned to what the second act of Popeyes might look like. How can he turn an indelible moment in fast food history into something more enduring?

As the brand became, “quote end quote hot,” says Siddiqui, demand from investors and franchisees arose around the world. Potential operators wanted in. Current operators wanted more. In fact, for many years the brand did not bring new franchisees into the system. Today, there is a waiting list, he says.

Siddiqui, former president of the Asia-Pacific region at parent company Restaurant Brand International before joining Popeyes in September 2020, spearheaded the brand’s launch in China and the Philippines. In both cases, he said, lines of four, five, even seven hours snaked around the openings. “I think part of it – a lot of it – 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 far-reaching implications: as Popeyes turns 50, people are talking about the brand more than ever.

In 2021, it crossed the 3,000 units mark in the United States and Canada. Popeyes has signed more development deals worldwide than at any other time in its history. It is heading to India, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Romania, France, South Korea and, of course, other markets in the US, Mexico and the Canadian base of RBI.

In customer surveys, which the brand regularly conducts, it asks consumers what their barriers are to reviewing Popeyes. “And what they always say is…actually convenience,” he says. “There just aren’t any Popeyes close enough to me. And we think that’s a huge opportunity.

“I see this as my obligation to build more Popeyes,” adds Siddiqui.

Just by mapping overseas, there are “a few hundred” Popeyes in Asia today. Twenty-six percent of KFC’s total system sales come from China alone. Yum’s Giant Chicken! has 26,934 restaurants, of which only 3,953 are in the United States

“I think that highlights the desirability of white spaces,” says Siddiqui.

In many ways, Popeyes’ chicken sandwich gave RBI a trigger point it was looking for when it came to the brand. On March 27, 2017, RBI acquired Popeyes for $1.8 billion. It was a big move because it secured the owner of Burger King and Tim Hortons (he now also runs Firehouse Subs) a serious stake in chicken.

From acquisition to 2020, RBI has achieved cumulative net restaurant growth of 27% at Popeyes. As noted, 2021 represented the highest number of openings yet, with the brand closing the calendar with 3,705 restaurants globally, a network of 254 stores, representing unit growth of 7.4%. This total is broken down into 2,754 US locations (net of 146 restaurants) and 951 international outlets (net of 108 restaurants).

“We’re only scratching the surface of the opportunities for Popeyes,” RBI CEO Jose Cil said in February. “And I strongly believe the brand is poised to become one of the fastest growing in the industry.”

At the end of 2020, Popeyes emerged as the nation’s second-largest chicken chain, just ahead of Chick-fil-A and around 1,300 units behind KFC. After Wingstop, which had more than 1,500 stores and continues to grow, recently raising its global target to 7,000 total stores, Church’s Chicken (913 units), Zaxby’s (905) and Bojangles (758) approached the three-way club figures. Raising Cane’s (509) and El Pollo Loco (482) were also up.

But as crowded as this category is, says Siddiqui, Popeyes has no trouble standing out. It’s as much a race for access as anything else.