U.S. fried chicken juggernaut Popeyes has picked Westfield Stratford for its flagship London restaurant. It will open in November 2021, replacing a KFC, which is justice about as poetic as can be applied to large American fried chicken brands and their market wranglings. Popeyes’s arrival in London is the prelude to a longer-term plan of covering the country in Louisiana-style fried chicken restaurants, with it shooting for around 350 in its initial announcement back in March.
There will be no concessions or changes to the U.K. market on the menu, which is best known for its tenders, nuggets, and a famous fried chicken sandwich. When it comes to further expansion, chief executive Tom Crowley said that “All our locations will be carefully chosen, in communities that echo the Louisianan spirit synonymous with Popeyes®.” The London communities that echo the Louisianan spirit synonymous with Popeyes® will be revealed in due course.
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, despite questionable sourcing and labour practices, and 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.
Its move — and confidence in expansion at a time when COVID-19 and Brexit are putting significant pressures on both labour and ingredient distribution — is another sign of how big American fast food chains have the infrastructure and capital to make these kind of pushes in deeply uncertain economic times for restaurants. Those chains’s capital is often amassed 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
Headlines in spring 2020 even proclaimed Popeyes “immune” to coronavirus, despite outbreaks in meat plants being well-documented and the previous sandwich boom, a market fluctuation much less pronounced than a global pandemic, leaving workers facing extended hours, no breaks, and even attacks from customers. Popeyes did sign up to the “Better Chicken Commitment” in early 2021, which aims to improve welfare standards at large chains and supermarkets, and the flourishing of merited questioning of its infrastructure in 2019 needs to be put in the context of the racial history of fried chicken in America, and who gets to enjoy food without being under a microscope.
Ultimately, when Popeyes makes its way on to these shores, it will go from being a big player to a new arrival; it will arrive with uncertainty and heavy expectation as much as considerable clout and anticipation. To some, it is a long-feted arrival; to others, it is just another fast food joint.