Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen is launching its Chicken Nuggets nationwide today, using the same recipe that catapulted its iconic fried chicken sandwich to stardom.
The white meat chicken breast nuggets are dipped into the same buttermilk batter and seasoned breading as the sandwich and fried quickly to create a light, crunchy coating and juicy interior. But the R&D story doesn't stop there.
“As soon as the team knew everything would work out with our chicken sandwich, we asked ‘where do we go from here?’” said Amy Alarcon, Popeyes’ vice president of culinary innovation. She and her team started development soon after the national debut of the sandwich in November 2019, staying true to the chain’s Louisiana flavor traditions and cooking techniques.
Basically, “a nugget is a spoon for sauce,” said Alarcon. ““We took our famous fillet and put it in poppable form.”
Customers can choose from seven sauce options, several with Louisiana roots. For those who like a little spice, there’s Mardi Gras Mustard, Sweet Heat, Bayou Buffalo and BoldBQ. Buttermilk Ranch is for tamer palates.
Perfecting the nugget
Keeping the nugget on the milder side was one of the R&D goals, said Alarcon. “Nuggets are the perfect size for little hands to hold, so we wanted these nuggets to be kid-friendly.”
These aren’t the first chicken nuggets to come out of the gate at Popeyes. A previous iteration was spicier—but not spicy enough for grownups who like spice and not mild enough for kids. Another variation didn’t hit Popeyes quality standards; it was a freezer-to-fryer product.
The new nuggets are fresh, whole-muscle chicken breast with a natural cut; the pieces are irregularly shaped so they aren’t “cookie cutter,” said Alarcon. The chicken is marinated for at least 12 hours, hand battered and breaded, then fried to order. Every piece is made from scratch every day at each location.
With current supply chain challenges around chicken breast meat, how did Popeyes source enough product for a national launch at close to 3,000 stores in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada?
“Over the last six months we have been working closely with our chicken supplier partners to provide them with the estimates needed to meet the anticipated demand of our Chicken Nuggets, and we believe we will be able to serve our new Nuggets to eager guests despite any industry supply issues,” Sami Siddiqui, president of Popeyes Americas, said in a statement.
Once the chicken supply was secured, online and onsite training helped the cooking teams get up to speed. The nuggets are a permanent menu item so it was crucial for the crew to know how to master the process.
The breading process requires a little elbow room, Alarcon said, so the breading area had to be expanded at some locations to accommodate both the sandwich and nuggets. “It’s an open finger technique,” she said, “the flour has to sift through the team member’s fingers to get the consistency right.”
Perfecting the packaging
The packaging experience is as important as the nugget experience, she added. Popeyes worked with a manufacturer to develop a box that would work for both the staff and the consumer; it had to be easy to fill and close at each unit and it had to keep the nuggets crisp in transit.
The result is a proprietary paperboard box with venting. The paperboard retains heat, while the small holes punched on the side keep the nuggets crunchy.
Customers can order everything from a 4-piece box holding a kids’ meal to a 36-piece box for a group. A special 48-nugget option is available through online and app orders. Pricing varies by location, but an 8-piece package goes for around $3.99.
The marketing component
The marketing for the nuggets aims to put an end to the chicken sandwich wars—a battle that many acknowledge Popeyes started. The slogan “We come in piece, 8 piece” is powering the campaign through social media channels, including YouTube.
Through the Popeyes Foundation, the Miami-based chain is kicking off the launch with a charitable move. Popeyes purchased the cash equivalent of 1 million nuggets from various nugget brands—including its own—and is making a donation to Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans & Acadiana.
The gesture is another effort to make “piece” and say good-bye to the chicken sandwich wars, Popeyes said in a statement.