Popeye’s spicy fried chicken sandwich is back, and the hype around its highly anticipated return has not died down. The sandwich, which is currently available in 150 nationwide locations, made its comeback on November 3 (which is apparently National Sandwich Day), more than two months after Popeyes officially declared a shortage on August 27.
Demand for the sandwich is high. On social media, some customers reported waiting over an hour for their order. Those who ordered on Popeye’s mobile app managed to skip the in-store wait, making the process much faster.
The long lines frustrated some customers, who lashed out at Popeyes employees or other customers waiting for their food. And it’s gotten even more extreme: on Monday, a man was reportedly stabbed to death outside a Popeyes in Maryland, after a fight broke out in the store over who cut in line, according to NBC News.
It appears that the returning date — a Sunday — was purposefully chosen as a jab at rival Chick-fil-A, which closes on Sunday to align with its founders’ Christian faith; Popeyes’s promotional video features a man tacking on “Open Sunday” to a Popeyes road sign next to a closed Chick-fil-A sign.
In August, a social media firestorm between the two brands over their competing chicken sandwiches brought droves of customers to both franchises. Popeyes wasn’t as prepared for the online #ChickenWars as Chick-fil-A, since its sandwich was a relatively new menu item. Popeyes had forecasted demand for the product through the end of September, according to a company statement, but sold through its existing inventory by the end of August.
This time, the company isn’t as worried about a chicken shortage.
“We are confident that we’ll be able to meet the demand,” Bruno Cardinali, Popeyes’s head of marketing for North America, told CNN Business. Now that Popeyes has stabilized its supply chain for the sandwich, offering the sandwich as a permanent menu item sounds more feasible.
“Across the system, franchisees have worked to increase staffing to be ready to serve guests with its return returns,” Cardinali wrote in an email to Vox.
Popeyes likely ran out of sandwiches shortly after its release because it didn’t seem necessary to overstock its inventory at the time.
“If you’re filling a thousand restaurants with inventory, that’s millions and millions of dollars worth of product,” Aaron Allen, CEO of the restaurant consultancy Aaron Allen & Associates, previously told Vox. If Popeyes had bought too many sandwiches, it would have had to deal with excess inventory and the financial losses, which would affect franchise owners and the corporation at large.
It’s a long process in general to ramp up production on a product, which requires multiple steps of approval from executives and decision makers. It didn’t help matter that Popeyes is one of the biggest fried chicken chains in the country, with more than 2,600 locations.
Still, at the time of the shortage, Allen found it surprising that Popeyes was “having this much difficulty pulling it off,” considering how there’s an oversupply of poultry in the US market. “It’s not like they’re manufacturing moon rock,” he said.
The chicken sandwich rush and the consequential shortage brought a brief bout of chaos to Popeyes stores nationwide. Employees were worked to exhaustion — skipping breaks, standing all day, and dealing with aggressive customers (some were even threatened with violence).
If August was any indication, November 3 and the days following will likely be chaotic for workers, who are on the front lines of the sandwich craze. As one Popeyes manager, Wanda Lavender, told Vox’s Alexia Fernández Campbell, corporations need to be aware of the human cost of producing high-demand menu items.
“We are busting our butts and breaking our backs and someone threatens to shoot us because we ran out of something,” Lavender said. “That doesn’t scare me, but imagine what that’s like for an 18-year-old kid who works here? It scares the life out of them. It’s a hard pill to swallow. And all over some sandwich.”
Food items go viral all the time, and this burst of online attention helped Popeyes rake in millions of dollars of marketing value. But trends — even deliciously greasy ones — come and go. Now that the sandwich is back for good, Popeyes has to anticipate not only customer demands but also what it takes to fulfill them.
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