U.S. fried chicken juggernaut Popeyes is planning to open a “flagship restaurant in London,” before proceeding to cover the U.K. in at least 350 fried chicken restaurants, according to Bloomberg.
Parent company Famous Brands International will franchise the brand with Elias Diaz Sese, who said: “The UK is such an exciting market and we think the authenticity of our brand and product is something customers here want to see. We think we will really benefit the communities we move in to. It’s difficult to say exactly what the scale will be right now, but we are looking to create hundreds of jobs in the restaurants and in the supply chain.”
It’s not the first fried chicken giant to make a move on the U.K. in recent times. Chick-fil-A, the fried chicken sandwich chain with a history of funding anti-LGBTQ+ organisations, had its lease cancelled by Reading’s Oracle Shopping centre just a week after opening, following sustained protest against its arrival in England. It also closed its Scotland restaurant in a Highlands hotel (??) January 2020, quietly retreating from the U.K.’s shores.
Popeyes, founded in New Orleans in 1972, has been lent a much kinder position in the broader fast food poptimism movement that has flourished in American food media, despite questionable sourcing and labour practices. That position has translated into the kind of brand pull that compels a transatlantic expansion. Consider the Popeyes fried chicken sandwich mania of 2019, in which the New Yorker declared that the sandwich was “here to save America,” while ICE raided the poultry plants that likely made its domination possible and Popeyes joined every other fast food brand in shouting about whose chicken sandwich slapped on Twitter. A local connoisseur will surely be intrigued to see how this new arrival fits into the fabric of London’s chicken shop culture.
Multimillion dollar American fast food chains have the infrastructure and capital to make these kind of pushes in deeply uncertain economic times for restaurants; headlines in spring 2020 proclaimed Popeyes “immune” to coronavirus. Those chains’ relentless pursuit of capital is often made at the expense of wages and labour protections for their workers and ethical practices in their supply chains; those chains’ low prices make food engineered to taste as good as it can accessible to more people, especially those economically and socially excluded from other areas of restaurant culture. But: much coverage and critique focusses on consumers who can decide whether or not to visit, instead of on the people and animals along the supply chains that have less agency.
The Popeyes sandwich boom that earned it such plaudits left its workers, many on minimum wages that mean they can’t buy a meal where they work, forced to work with no breaks, enduring cramps, threats from customers angry if the sandwich sold out, and even violent attacks. Sandwich booms and the ensuing “wars” between chains put enormous pressure on already intensive meat supply chains, and Popeyes workers have joined those at Wendy’s, which will beat Popeyes to these shores with an opening in Reading, in the fight for a $15 minimum wage that neither company wants to see implemented. Popeyes did sign up to the “Better Chicken Commitment” in early 2021, which aims to improve welfare standards at large chains and supermarkets.
The sandwich, the chicken tenders, and more will arrive on the U.K. and likely taste good, and people’s joy in eating them is important. But the wider economics of who gets to expand when, and at whose cost won’t stop following fast food corporations around until they prove they care about their workers as much as their sandwiches.