What: US fried chicken fast food behemoth Popeyes made its UK debut over the weekend in London’s Westfield Stratford shopping centre.
Who: Founded in New Orleans in 1972, Popeyes is a well-established player in the US fast food scene and beyond, operating around 3,500 restaurants across the world. The UK will be the brand’s eleventh country in the EMEA region, which is already home to more than 350 Popeyes restaurants.
The food: Battered chicken marinated in a blend of Louisianan herbs and spices is the brand’s signature item, but other products that have made it across the pond include its chicken tenders; hot wings; mac ‘n’ cheese; and Southern biscuits with Cajun gravy. The Stratford restaurant will also showcase some new menu items, the most significant of which is its first ever vegan product. Called the Creole Red Bean Sandwich it is made from a 100% plant-based red bean patty with lettuce, tomato and Creole sauce in a soft brioche bun.
The vibe: Popeyes restaurants are characterised by a simple approach to design with neutral colours and smart clean branding (its most recent brand design is a orange neon signage against a black background and a lit-up chicken playing the saxophone), pitching it slightly higher end to what will be its biggest competitor KFC.
And another thing: The Stratford restaurant is part of a major play by the business in the UK, with plans to open 350 sites over here in the next decade.
Popeyes has the might to make an impact
Popeyes’ move in the UK marks another concerted push by US fast food brands over here, and their timing is impeccable, writes Stefan Chomka.
Does the UK need another fast food brand coming over here from America? It’s a question that has been asked a few times of me in the past few months in light of brands including Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s and now Popeyes pitching up on these shores. And the answer is yes.
OK, the UK doesn’t ‘need’ another fast food chicken or burger brand, it’s not exactly short of options in either department, but by pitching themselves squarely in the fast food area, rather than in the more premium category, this new wave of US entrants have spotted a gap in the market. Brands such as Wendy’s and Carl’s Jr (which also intends to come to the UK next year) will have looked on in envy at the inroads that Five Guys has made in this country over the past five years or so but will have also seen an opportunity to come in and bridge the gap between them and the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King, and this is exactly what Popeyes will be looking to do. While there has been a rash of more premium, and more expensive, gourmet fried chicken brands in the UK over the past decade, the dominance of KFC has yet to be troubled, with most customers seemingly unwilling to trade up and pay what can be twice the amount for a more premium offer. Popeyes, by contrast, will go head-to-head with KFC, offering fried chicken at a similar price but with enough point of difference to encourage people to give it a try. This was very much an area that Chick-Fil-A would have also sat in confidently had its entry into the UK not been so disastrous because of its very questionable and dated attitude towards the LGBT+ community.
It is interesting that, like Wendy’s, Popeyes has also chosen Stratford for its first site (the east London area was in fact Wendy’s second choice after Reading) but no coincidence given its target demographic dovetails with that of Westfield shopping centre. More shopping centre locations are likely with Popeyes UK development director Tom Byng stating that drive thrus and dark kitchens will also be on the cards.
If the current queues snaking outside of Wendy’s Stratford are anything to go by, young people are keen to have a different taste of fast food Americana, and they are the target market of many landlords looking to appeal to a new generation of diners and shoppers. Byng is certainly confident of Popeyes playing a role in this. “What we’re seeing is an amazing level of excitement from the general public about the brand, and that’s starting to pervade through to the landlords as well,” he said at the recent Restaurant Conference. “We’re seeing landlords wanting to push their food offer on, wanting a new brand pushing the boundaries. Landlords are coming to us because they recognise that we’ve got something that they might want.”
Popeyes’ appeal is that it is instantly recognisable. While UK diners might not be totally cognisant with the brand the food offer and service style holds no mystery, only fresh appeal. The brand has also read the room with the introduction of a vegan option specially for the UK, implying that it has done its homework on the UK market.
I don’t expect everything to fly: many brands have tried to bring the Southern staple of biscuits and gravy to the UK and all failed and I’m not backing Popeyes to be any more successful. But if quietly dropping that from the menu is its biggest issue then it’s got a lot going for it.