Financing

Popeyes has quickly become a major chicken wing brand

The fast-food chicken chain is already the No. 3 provider of quick-service wings, the company said. And the company has plans to improve its ability to serve them.
Popeyes wings
Wings have instantly become popular for Popeyes. | Photo courtesy of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.

Popeyes has quickly become a major player in the chicken wing business.

The Miami-based chicken chain made its five-flavor chicken wings a permanent fixture on its menu in December.

By February it has become one of the country’s biggest players in the space.

Josh Kobza, CEO of Popeye’s parent company Restaurant Brands International, told analysts this week that the brand is already the country’s third-largest provider of quick-service wings.

“We’re all really excited about the new wings at Popeye’s,” Kobza told analysts on RBI’s fourth-quarter earnings call Tuesday. “Most people are probably surprised to know that Popeyes didn’t have a flavored wing platform. So we’re really happy we could do that.”

For Popeye’s, the wings continue an evolution from a chain that largely sold chicken on the bone to consumers for dinner into a multi-daypart platform selling on-the-go items like chicken sandwiches and delivery-friendly items like wings.

That evolution started with the introduction of its Chicken Sandwich in 2019, a product that boosted average unit volumes and has helped fuel the brand’s U.S. expansion.

Kobza told investors at a special event on Thursday that the chain expects to add another 800 locations in the U.S. and Canada by 2028, which would give the brand 4,200 locations.

But shifting from a brand that serves mostly traditional chicken to one that serves other items like flavored chicken wings and chicken sandwiches requires operational improvements.

The brand has been developing kitchen improvements designed to make it easier for employees while improving speed and order accuracy. The chain calls it the “Easy to Love Plan.”

“The biggest unlock is the design of the kitchens,” Kobza said on Thursday. He said the company spent two years working with franchisees and visited international markets to redesign the kitchen with new equipment and simplified processes.

Those processes include new equipment such as automated batter makers that make that process almost fully automated and more consistent. The kitchen features a modular production line to simplify that process. And there are digital drop charts designed to “take the guess work out of production” and label printers to improve accuracy.

“The results are exciting,” Kobza said, adding that the upgraded kitchens can take “as little as one night.” Popeye’s plans bring the new kitchen to more clusters of restaurants and then a broader rollout afterward.

The shift to chicken sandwiches, and now wings, has increased digital and delivery sales at the chain. Digital sales now account for 25%.

Popeyes and other chicken chains have long toyed with wings. But last year the company decided to devote more attention to the product, providing customers with five flavor options, similar to other chicken concepts like Wingstop and Buffalo Wild Wings. Those flavors include Honey BBQ, Roasted Garlic Parmesan, Signature Hot, Ghost Pepper and Sweet 'n Spicy. Popeyes argues that its quality scores could give it an advantage in the wing market.

The company brought them to its restaurants last summer before returning them permanently in December. And then Popeyes took out a Super Bowl ad, featuring the actor Ken Jeong emerging from a cryochamber once the chain introduced its wings. The ad proved popular.

Indeed, the ad itself has brought awareness of the product to consumers. One franchisee said Thursday that the ad helped generate wing sales during and after the game.

“That was what was behind the thought of doing the Super Bowl ad,” Kobza said. “We didn’t have high mass market awareness that Popeyes had wings. And the Super Bowl is a tremendous vehicle to drive vast, mass-market awareness.”

In that sense, Popeyes’ timing is excellent. The Super Bowl this year was the most watched television program in history.

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