Popeyes, the fried chicken juggernaut, will open its first U.K. restaurant in Stratford on 20 November, and the menu includes its first ever vegan burger, a patty untouched by the tech meat companies that have come to dominate the vegan fast food arena at international chains. Its opening is the prelude to a longer-term plan of covering the country in Louisiana-style fried chicken restaurants, with the brand shooting for around 350 in its initial announcement back in March 2021.
The U.K. menu brings over the fried chicken for which it is best known: classic or spicy chicken; tenders; and the fried chicken sandwich whose launch singlehandedly took over the fast food poptimism movement in 2019. 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.
But it’s also bringing something entirely new: the vegan burger. A red bean patty, breaded and fried, and served with lettuce; tomato; and a creamy “Creole” sauce made with onion, garlic, peppers, tomato, and parsley. Its main ingredient recalls one of the chain’s most famous sides, red beans and rice, and veers away from its competitors — McDonald’s, Burger King — who have chosen to tie up with tech meat monoliths Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods for the McPlant and Impossible Whopper respectively. Many U.K. burger and / or fast food restaurants, be they larger chains like Byron or smaller independents, have also chosen to go down this route rather than making their own proprietary options.
Its move is another sign of how big American fast food chains have the infrastructure and capital to make these kind of pushes, at a time when COVID-19 and Brexit are putting significant pressures on both labour and ingredient distribution. Popeyes follows Wendy’s, which has also opened in Stratford, while Carl’s Jr has declared its intentions. Chick-fil-A, the fried chicken sandwich chain with a history of funding anti-LGBTQ+ organisations, tried, and got short shrift.
The capital required for these huge expansions is often amassed at the expense of wages and labour protections for their workers and ethical practices in their supply chains. 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, but the timeframe for that commitment has not been clarified. The flourishing of merited questioning of its infrastructure in 2019 also 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.
These considerations are always going to be in play, but the biggest news of its arrival not involving chicken at all is a much more unexpected turn. More soon.