This week, hotly anticipated fast food import and U.S. fried chicken juggernaut Popeyes made its London debut at its shiny new flagship restaurant at the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford.
Popeyes’s arrival in London comes — quite hilariously — at the expense of that old timer fried chicken chain KFC, whose site it has taken; it sits opposite a McDonald’s on the ground floor of Westfield’s food court. And because global food brands are mercilessly exploiting opportunities in the post-Brexit, post-lockdown London restaurant dystopia, Popeyes will be neighbours with another American fast food behemoth as Wendy’s nestled in to Westfield when making its U.K. return in August this year.
Rivalling Shake Shack’s debut in 2013 and more recently that of Jollibee in 2018, Popeyes’s Louisianan fried chicken sandwich has been steadily dialling up the hypeometer since first announcing the London opening in March this year — this restaurant apparently the first of 350 sites across the country in the coming years.
Though Popeyes was founded in New Orleans in 1972, it is in recent years — most notably the high-profile online chicken sandwich “wars” of 2019 — that it reached the globally recognised status needed to make such an ambitious expansion drive feasible. But Popeyes’s success as a food business cannot exist outside of a conversation about the wider economics and often questionable labour practices, low wages, and ingredient sourcing employed by fast food brands. Nor can its success be fully understood without first placing it in the context of the racial history of fried chicken in America.
Workers at both chicken plants and on the restaurants’s frontline are those who bear the greatest cost of the brand’s success — the demands placed on staff at a hyped launch like in London are not commensurate with the compensation offered to them. And yet, low costs mean low prices for food very deliberately designed to appeal to a majority, so often those economically and socially excluded from many other areas of restaurant culture.
The consensus from the hypebeasts this week is that this big-deal import is indeed going to appeal to a majority: That the chicken is good and that the sandwich is better. While the marketing probably beats the lot. All of which is to say that, as predicted, the crowds came out in huge numbers on day one — so Eater London’s photographer was there to witness first-hand the hype, the hysteria, and the happiness up close in real life.
To borrow Popeyes’s own parlance, “Y’all ready?”