LONDON. There were cookies, but not the kind that the British know.
“It looks like a flatbread,” Victoria Ubochi said after tasting the cookies, “but it doesn’t taste like a cake.”
One of the challenges for any company going international is to translate the cultural elements of their brand into a new market. For Popeyes, an American fried chicken chain that opened its first store in the UK over the weekend, the problem was biscuits, which in British English means biscuits, not puff pastry.
On Saturday, hundreds of customers queued for hours at the food court at Westfield Stratford City in East London to sample Popeyes for the first time. Some said they had heard of the madness he caused in the United States in 2019. Others learned about the brand through links in rap music. (“Then I’ll get there and all the Popeyes are finished, girl,” says one Kanye West song.) Some Americans living in London said they couldn’t wait to get a taste of home.
Tom Crowley, CEO of Popeyes UK, said it was clear from focus groups that the typical British shopper does not understand what a buttermilk sponge cake is. To complicate matters further, the cookies looked like buns that are usually dipped in hot tea rather than eaten with fried chicken.
He recalled focus group participants saying, “Why are you giving me the chicken tortilla? I have no idea what you are doing. “
“I suppose if we had continued our research,” he added, “we probably wouldn’t have done it, to be honest.”
Ultimately, the team decided to add cookies to the menu to keep the brand true to its Louisiana roots. “All of this legacy plays well,” said Mr. Crowley. “The UK, in our opinion, really appreciates that great fried chicken is made from the southern states.”
Raymond Brazelman, originally from New Orleans near the chain’s founding site in 1972 and having lived in the UK for 18 months, said he was unable to find fried chicken that matched what he ate as a child. “It’s definitely a little home here in the UK,” he said Saturday, approaching the first stage. “So I’ve been waiting for this for about two months.”
Popeyes, one of the largest fried chicken chains in the United States, was founded in Louisiana by Al Copeland, who was born into a poor family in New Orleans. His first attempt at a fried chicken restaurant, inspired by the opening of KFC in New Orleans, was unsuccessful. He modified his chicken recipe by adding Cajun-inspired cayenne pepper and spices and changed the name to Popeyes. (He said he couldn’t afford an apostrophe.) It was a hit.
By the late 1980s, he owned or rented over 800 establishments. Today, there are over 3,400 Popeyes offices around the world, including Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, China, Jamaica and Brazil.
Nov 22, 2021 1:33 PM ET
Popeyes, owned by Restaurant Brands International, is betting it can overcome competition in the UK, which is no stranger to fried chicken and has American brands like KFC. There are plans to open 10 to 15 additional Popeyes outlets in the UK next year, Crowley said.
Several Americans said that the food in the London restaurant was as good as they remembered. But there are some differences from the US franchises. Halal chicken to meet the needs of the Muslim population of the area. Almost all of the ingredients are sourced from the UK, including the gemstone salad, which is more difficult to find in the United States. The menu also includes the world’s first vegan fried red bean burger, reflecting the strong demand for plant-based foods in the UK market.
Other American fast food companies are expanding their operations in the UK. Wendy’s opened last week in Croydon, near London, and is the fourth Wendy’s to open in the UK since June. McDonald’s is also planning new outlets. Chick-fil-A opened its first UK restaurant two years ago, but announced it would close just six months after activists spoke out against the company’s opposition to same-sex marriage. (Chick-fil-A then said she planned to stay for a limited time anyway.)
Dante Ellington-Grant got up at 7 a.m. Saturday and drove over an hour from his London home to queue up at the new Popeyes on its opening day.
“It was a breath of fresh air,” he said of his meal, describing the juiciness and crispness of the chicken. He also liked cookies, which he felt was better than flatbread.
“I don’t eat buns,” he said.