Wildly popular Popeyes chicken sandwich gets Edmonton pilot thanks to Alberta's COVID success

Albertans will be the first in Canada to sample a fried chicken sandwich that became a social-media sensation with its U.S. debut last summer when Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen adds the menu item to stores in select cities in the province Wednesday.

Alberta chosen for the Canadian debut of the sandwich that would 'save America'

Randy Estrada holds up his chicken sandwiches at a Popeyes, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019, in Kyle, Texas. The crispy chicken sandwich caused a sensation on social media and in stores. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

A popular chain of fried chicken restaurants is putting the launch into Alberta's economic relaunch, with the Canadian debut of a sandwich that became a social media sensation in the U.S.

Starting Wednesday, locations of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen in five Alberta cities will sell a fried chicken sandwich that last year generated long lines, supply shortages and deadly violence south of the border.

The Canadian trial of the sandwich was planned for Ontario and Alberta in April, but the COVID-19 pandemic derailed that plan. Widespread physical distancing precautions seemed out of step with long lines of hungry customers, said Rob Manuel, Popeyes Canada general manager.

"We made the conscious decision not to do this back in April because it didn't ... seem like the right thing to do at the time, Manuel said.

Now the test will take place in Edmonton's eight restaurants, as well as four other locations in Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Lloydminster and Fort Saskatchewan.

"Alberta is in a — I guess — a more advanced stage of the COVID recovery than some other places in the country," Manuel said.

A sandwich to 'save America'

When Popeyes launched the sandwich last August, U.S. critics fawned over the fried chicken with pickles and sauce on a brioche bun creation. New Yorker food correspondent Helen Rosner wrote a piece headlined: "The Popeyes chicken sandwich is here to save America."

Hordes flocked to the chain's restaurants as reviews of what was dubbed "the sandwich" flooded social media. Some stores ran out of the in-demand product within days, prompting anger and even violence.

People wait in line outside a Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen restaurant in New York City, New York, U.S., August 23, 2019. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

In September, police in Houston said a man pulled a gun at a Popeyes restaurant after learning they had sold out of the sandwich. When the manager repeated that they were out of stock, the man left and no one was injured.

On Nov. 4, 2019 — one day after Popeyes started selling the sandwich again — a man in Maryland allegedly stabbed to death a 28-year-old man who police said had been "methodically" cutting in line for the re-released chicken sandwiches for about 15 minutes before the suspect, who was later arrested and charged with murder, confronted him.

The sandwich supercharged Popeyes sales as the chain's comparable sales, a key retail metric, grew more than 10 per cent in the U.S. for the quarter during which it sold the item as a limited-time summer offer, making it one of the chain's best quarters in almost two decades.

Popeyes later released the famous menu item in Brazil, China and the Philippines, said Manuel, "so Canada was coming regardless of this" pandemic.

High demand expected here

Despite the continuing restrictions around COVID-19, Popeyes still expects to see high demand and has implemented safety measures to keep its Alberta customers and staff healthy, before expanding to Ontario and then nationally.

"We're confident in the measures we have in place," said Manuel. 

Alberta's second phase of its relaunch, which went into effect June 12, has allowed restaurant dining rooms to reopen with no capacity limit, though tables must be two metres apart or separated with a barrier, and no more than six people can sit at one table.

Albertans seem to feel more comfortable visiting restaurants, said Manuel.

Popeyes has placed physical distancing markers in and outside the restaurants to help manage any lines, he said. Staff will wear face masks and gloves and acrylic screens have been installed.

Most of the company's restaurants there also have drive-thrus, he noted, which would help with physical distancing.

Popeyes plans to expand the test to London and Windsor next, and is eyeing a national launch at its 218 restaurants across Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. in the fall.

But that depends on a couple of things, Manuel said, including where the country is in terms of the coronavirus.

When London and Windsor enter the third stage of Ontario's reopening plan, he said, Popeyes will have a better idea of a pilot timeline for those regions.

With files from The Associated Press


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