It took Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen almost three years to perfect its premium fried chicken sandwich, setting the bar for all that followed.
The social media buzz around Popeyes’ 2019 launch went global, and soon VP of Culinary Amy Alarcon was tasked with taking the iconic item on the road—to 25 countries around the world. That meant adapting the sandwich to the tastes and supply chains of different cultures and continents while retaining its signature elements.
“We spend a lot of time benchmarking ourselves locally [in a country] before a launch, trying to keep the sandwich as close to the original as possible,” she said.
But to understand how Popeyes localizes the sandwich in each market, it’s first necessary to recap the R&D behind the original.
The story behind the sandwich
“We created a lot of chicken sandwiches before honing in on the flavors that resonated,” Alarcon said. “The bones had to be perfect in the original sandwich and every element had to stand on its own.”
Alarcon’s goal was to have Popeyes’ fried chicken sandwich “tell the story of the brand in a handheld, portable format,” so she uses the same seasoning that goes in the coating for the chain’s signature bone-in fried chicken. But from there, the search was on for the other components.
The team’s first task was to find great bread—artisan-style like an independent would use, a little sweet to contrast with the spice in the coating, but not too sweet. Alarcon worked with a local bakery to source a brioche bun with the right taste and texture.
Then it was on to the pickles. Popeyes veered away from shelf-stable acidified pickles because they tasted of preservatives, Alarcon said. The final choice was a fresh, barrel-aged pickle from a Chicago supplier. “We wanted a pickle with snap,” she said.
In early iterations, lettuce and tomato were layered on the sandwich instead of pickles, but tomatoes are inconsistent and not always good during certain times of the year. “We wanted to give customers the same experience all year long, and pickles accomplish that,” said Alarcon.
Since Popeyes is a Louisiana brand, a priority was to find a sauce that reflects the chain’s roots. Blue Plate mayonnaise, a fatty, creamy, local ingredient that “brings you back to New Orleans,” said Alarcon, became the overwhelming choice. It works well on its own and as a base for the spicy Cajun version of the sandwich.
Although the spice in the chicken filet’s coating is the same as that in Popeyes fried chicken, the breading is completely different. “We use a batter similar to our crawfish tails,” said Alarcon. “It’s a buttermilk breading system that combines hard and soft flours and produces a batter with a texture like tempura. It has more leavening to punch through the richness of the sauce and the bun.”
Perhaps most important of all, the chicken’s coating retains its crunch an hour after it leaves Popeyes locations. Takeout-friendly food is key to the chain’s business model.
Popeyes crispy fried chicken sandwich was a huge success right out of the gate and continues to be a best seller on the permanent menu. With global demand for the sandwich growing, Alarcon and her team soon started working with supplier partners around the world to replicate the components.
Popeyes sandwich takes on the world
“We’re very choosy when we spec ingredients globally,” said Alarcon. Her team works with suppliers in Latin America, Europe and Asia to replicate products and get them as close as possible to the U.S versions.
The batter for the fried chicken filet, for example, might have to be tweaked depending on what’s available. If a supplier doesn’t have the right type of flour, we may have to change the leavening or add barley to the blend, she said. The “snappy” pickles may be hard to source, so some stores end up making their own from scratch.
Local tastes also influence the components. In some Asian countries, Popeyes uses boneless thigh meat chicken because that’s what customers prefer, said Alarcon. “And in Vietnam and Singapore, we doubled the heat, adding more spice to the breading. If the sodium level needs to increase or decrease, we’ll adjust that too.”
Blue Plate mayonnaise is too perishable to travel far from home, so in each part of the world, Popeyes specs a target for a mayo with a similar flavor profile and creaminess. Ditto with the bun. “We need to keep everything as close as possible,” said Alarcon.
Will Popeyes build on the success of its fried chicken sandwich with line extensions?
For the 2021 Lenten season, the chain rejiggered some of its components to create a Cajun Flounder Sandwich—“a natural extension,” said Alarcon. Although the culinary team has “exciting things in the works, potentially for summer,” Popeyes wants to open more stores and get the chicken sandwich into everyone’s hands before developing any other line extensions, she added.