Popeyes opens its first location in London

LONDON – There were cookies, but not the ones the British know about.

“It looks like a scone,” Victoria Ubochi said after trying a cookie, “but it doesn’t taste like it.”

One of the challenges for any internationally expanding company is to translate the cultural elements of its brand into a new market. For Popeyes, the American fried chicken chain that opened its first outlet in Britain this weekend, the challenge was the cookies, which in British English means cookies, and not tender, flaky bread.

Hundreds of shoppers lined up for hours at a food court in Westfield Stratford City shopping center in east London on Saturday for their first tasting of Popeyes. Some said they had heard about the frenzy it sparked in the United States in 2019. Others had heard about the brand through references in rap music. (“So I’m coming and all the Popeyes are over, girl,” a Kanye West song reads.) Some Americans living in London said they were eager to taste at home.

Tom Crowley, managing director of Popeyes UK, said it was clear from focus groups that the typical UK customer was confused about the concept of a buttermilk cookie. To complicate matters further, the cookies looked like scones, which are usually served with hot tea, not fried chicken.

Focus group participants, he recalls, would say, “Why are you giving me a chicken scone?” I have no idea what you are doing.

“I guess if we had done the research,” he added, “we probably wouldn’t have done it, if I’m being honest.”

The team ultimately decided to put cookies on the menu to keep the brand true to its Louisiana roots. “This whole legacy is playing out well,” said Mr. Crowley. “The UK, in our opinion, actually appreciates that good fried chicken comes out of the southern United States.”

Raymond Braselman, from New Orleans, near where the chain was founded in 1972, and who has lived in Britain for 18 months, said he couldn’t find a fried chicken compared to what he had grown up eating. “It’s definitely a bit of my home here in the UK,” he said on Saturday as he approached the front of the line. “So I’ve been waiting for him for about two months now. “

Popeyes, one of the largest fried chicken chains in the United States, was founded in Louisiana by Al Copeland, who was born into a poor family in New Orleans. His first attempt at a fried chicken restaurant, inspired by the opening of a KFC in New Orleans, was unsuccessful. He tweaked his chicken recipe, adding cayenne pepper and Cajun-inspired spices, and changed the name to Popeyes. (He said he couldn’t afford an apostrophe.) It was a hit.

By the end of the 1980s, he owned or had franchised more than 800 locations. Today, there are over 3,400 Popeyes locations around the world, in countries such as Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, China, Jamaica and Brazil.

Popeyes, which is owned by Restaurant Brands International, is betting it can stand out from the competition in Britain, which is no stranger to fried chicken and has American brands like KFC. There are plans to open an additional 10 to 15 Popeyes locations in Britain next year, Mr Crowley said.

Several Americans said the food at the London site was as good as they remembered it. But there are some differences with American franchises. The chicken is halal to meet the needs of the Muslim population in the region. Almost all of the ingredients are sourced from Great Britain, including baby gem lettuce, which is harder to find in the United States. The menu also includes the chain’s very first vegan burger, featuring refried red beans, a nod to the high demand for plant-based foods in the UK market.

Other American fast food businesses are expanding in Britain. Wendy’s opened last week in Croydon, outside London, the fourth Wendy’s to open in Britain since June. McDonald’s is also planning to open new locations. Two years ago, Chick-fil-A opened its first UK restaurant, but announced it would close after just six months after activists protested against the company’s opposition to same-sex marriage. (Chick-fil-A said at the time that he planned to stay for a limited time anyway.)

Dante Ellington-Grant got up at 7 a.m. on Saturday and traveled over an hour from his home in London to line up at the new Popeyes on the day it opened.

“It was a breath of fresh air,” he said of his meal, describing the juiciness and crispness of the chicken. He also liked the cookie, which he thought was better than a scone.

“I don’t eat scones,” he said.

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