Popeyes' fried chicken sandwich is simple and self-evident. It is, from all appearances, a standard “Southern-style” chicken sandwich with mayo (regular or spicy), thick-cut pickles, a buttery brioche bun, and a chicken breast seasoned and spiced with Popeye's traditional buttermilk batter.
But Twitter, politics, focus-tested quality, naked enthusiasm, and misplaced priorities have made this sandwich a phenomenon. The act of acquiring this $4 sandwich has reached Black Friday proportions. Lines snake out the door. Fights break out on the drive-thru. And a man died—literally died—over a sandwich-related conflict last week.
To get you caught up, here's a brief timeline of the Popeyes fried chicken sandwich craze and all the drama and violence surrounding it.
Late 2016: In the beginning...
The origins of the Popeyes fried chicken sandwich can be traced back to 2016. Popeyes vice president of culinary innovation Amy Alarcon set out to make a perfect chicken sandwich.
She and her team workshopped and developed the sandwich we know today, using many of the same spices and butter spread that customers were already familiar with from Popeyes’ fried chicken and biscuits.
“That’s the best thing about this sandwich,” said Alarcon in an interview with Thrillist. “It’s like a microcosm of our brand that you can hold in your hand.”
August 12, 2019: Launch Day
The fried chicken sandwich debuted on August 12, and though it received good reviews, it was not the phenomenon that it would become; you could still walk into a Popeyes with confidence that you wouldn’t have to fight someone on the way out.
Some necessary context
The Popeyes chicken sandwich was a natural competitor against Chick-fil-A’s famous sandwich, which is also a Southern-style chicken sandwich with a buttered roll and pickles. Chick-fil-A markets itself as the originator and inventor of the chicken sandwich. It’s a dubious claim, but it’s one that, for all intents and purposes, might as well be true. Chick-fil-A was widely perceived (at least up until two months ago) as having the best fried chicken sandwich in the fast-food industry.
Many consumers, however, have criticized Chick-fil-A about its company values. Its founder was a devout Southern Baptist, which resulted in some charming eccentricities that persist today. All Chick-fil-A restaurants are closed on Sundays, for example.
Other eccentricities are less charming. Chick-fil-A has a history of sponsoring and supporting organizations that oppose LGBT rights and gay marriage. And although the company has publicly stated its intention to stay out of the political arena, it’s easy to follow the money and see where customers’ dollars are going.
So the stage was set, not only for a sandwich showdown, but for a larger, symbolic showdown of social values and matters of ethical consumption.
August 19: Chick-fil-A catches feelings
Chick-fil-A committed a grievous, unforced error when it decided to passively attack Popeyes’ chicken sandwich in a tweet, which read: “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the [heart] for the original.”
This projected insecurity on Chick-fil-A’s part—that they would deign to call out the underdog in a lopsided competition. And Popeyes, of course, came over the top with a “bless your little heart” Southern put down befitting its Louisiana roots: “... y’all good?”
This, plus other fast food chains like Wendy’s piling on, triggered a mass retweeting/liking/hashtagging storm, filled with Dead Mufasa memes. And it did more to market and promote Popeyes’ brand than any ad campaign could. Celebrities tried the sandwich. News anchors tried it. Writers wrote think pieces about it. And the lines began stretching out of Popeyes restaurants all over the country.
August 25, 2019: Quavo finds angle amidst sandwich shortages
The sandwiches were so popular that Popeyes began running out of them. This prompted rapper Quavo to post on Instagram that he had some and was willing to sell them for $1K apiece.
He was joking, of course. But other people seemed to take this idea seriously. There were postings on eBay that offered the sandwiches for thousands of dollars. And one enterprising Popeyes employee tried to set up a small business on the side. More on him later.
August 27, 2019: All Out!
It was inevitable: Popeyes ran out of chicken sandwiches. They had ordered enough stock to last them through September, had the sales projections stayed within a predictable range. What they did not expect was for the sandwich to go viral; the entire stock lasted all of two weeks, and Popeyes tweeted out an official statement that they had sold out of sandwiches. Many restaurants and customers put up handmade, DIY signs, informing hungry would-be diners that the sandwich was no longer available. And this, unfortunately, is the turning point of this story, when things go from silly online drama to dystopian satire.
August 29: A non-frivolous lawsuit
The decline began, as most things do in America, with a lawsuit. A man who spent hours driving from Popeyes to Popeyes, in search of the elusive chicken sandwich, filed against the fast food chain. He accused it of deceptive business practices and false advertising.
He did, however, raise one interesting point that gained some traction online: Was Popeyes deliberately withholding the sandwich as a means of stirring publicity? According to Popeyes, no. In fact, the company claimed that they over-ordered, expecting lots of customers, and they had run out of the surplus supply as well.
September 3, 2019: This is a stick-up!
But no matter. At least five people believed that Popeyes was holding out on them and decided that the best way to get what they wanted was to stick up the local Popeyes. Three men and two women (one of the men was brandishing a gun) tried to force their way into a Houston restaurant after being told, via the drive-thru, that the chicken sandwich was unavailable. Thankfully, the group didn’t get into the restaurant, and no one was hurt. That’s not true, unfortunately, for some of the other incidents on this list.
September 12, 2019: Bring your own bun
While waiting for their supplies to be replenished, Popeyes launched an ad campaign that trolled their customers. They announced that patrons could make their own sandwiches by way of BYOB (bring[ing] your own bun) and stuffing some chicken tenders in it. Voila!
It was hardly a long-term plan, and customers would have to wait two months for the relaunch of their beloved fried chicken sandwich.
November 2, 2019: Return of the King
Popeyes relaunched their chicken sandwich on November 2—this time with additional supply, to ensure that they would not run out. November 2 was a Sunday, the same day that Chick-fil-A is closed. It was petty, savvy, and brilliant.
November 3, 2019: Miraculous healing powers
The marketing campaign for the relaunch of the chicken sandwich, now a regular staple of the menu, reached peak ridiculousness the following day, when Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson credited the sandwich with healing his injured eye.
“I’ll tell you the key. The key is Popeyes’ spicy chicken sandwiches that I ate this week that helped the eye,” said Watson in an interview with the NFL.
Shameless, but all publicity is good publicity.
November 4, 2019: A fatal stabbing
November 4 is a day that will go down in infamy for Popeyes. After an argument in a Maryland Popeyes over cutting in line to get a chicken sandwich, two men stepped outside to the parking lot and fought. And during the fight, one of the men was fatally stabbed. Law enforcement identified the knife-wielder as Ricoh McClain, and he’s been charged with murder and assault. Life is not worth any possession, let alone a chicken sandwich. Popeyes also released a statement about the murder:
We are very sad to hear about the tragedy in Maryland. We do not yet know whether this was the result of a dispute over one of our products or something unrelated, but there is no reason for someone to lose their life on a Monday night in a parking lot. Our thoughts are with the victim’s family and friends and we are fully cooperating with local authorities.
November 5, 2019: Maryland melee
There were two notable chicken sandwich-related fights on November 5; thankfully, neither was fatal. The first was in Maryland; a customer jumped over the counter to fight an employee who called his partner stupid. The two men continued brawling in the kitchen. Watch, and despair.
A couple of the next incidents on this timeline were not explicitly over a chicken sandwich, but they all occurred in statistically abnormal succession to one another around the time of the sandwich’s relaunch. They were each exacerbated by the large crowds, which antagonized Popeyes' overworked employees.
November 5, 2019: Florida freakout
Here’s another Popeyes fight, this time at the drive-thru in Ellenton, Florida, between two customers. This one doesn't last too long. One of the men had a mean hook, and bystanders aided its recipient while the deliverer got back in his car.
November 5, 2019: Racist meltdown and apology
A white man went on a racist tirade and called another customer the N-word. He did this in front of a large crowd of black patrons.
A group of customers followed the man out to the parking lot, where they forced him to apologize. And then, for good measure, they reportedly took his chicken sandwiches. Every now and then, the universe balances the scales.
November 6, 2019: Car crash
Is it worth a Mercedes to cut the line for a chicken sandwich? Apparently for one woman at the drive-thru of a Los Angeles Popeyes, it was. She tried to squeeze past concrete pillars as both customers and employees implored her to stop.
November 8, 2019: Earning extra money
So remember how Quavo joked about selling marked-up Popeyes sandwiches? Well, one Popeyes worker in Los Angeles actually tried to do that, and when his fellow employees found out, they tried to beat him up.
November 9: Oh Bah Gawd!
And, lastly, here’s another recent story about a white person melting down and using the N-word at a Popeyes. This time, witnesses claim that a white woman, after being overcharged for her meal, used the N-word towards the black employees of a Popeyes in Columbia, Tennessee. When she went out to the parking lot, one of the male employees followed her and then body-slammed her, WWE-style, onto the concrete.
“If she said something that she regrets, it doesn’t give a grown man the right to chase her into the parking lot as she is trying to leave the store, and body slam a 55-year-old grandmother down on the concrete,” her attorney later said.
The woman suffered broken ribs and a broken knee. The man was arrested and fired.
November 13, 2019: Over a garbage bin?
It's hard to increase quantity without sacrificing quality, and one Popeyes in Fairfax, Virginia, learned that the hard way, when a customer caught a worker preparing chicken sandwiches on a tray balanced over a garbage bin. The restaurant had gotten a 100-sandwich order, and the workers were trying their best to grind it out. The owner took responsibility (the garbage bin, he claimed, was empty), and he ordered another food preparation table for his workers; he had just opened the restaurant three days earlier.
November 15, 2019: Child labor laws
We can imagine that Popeyes restaurants across the country are in need of an extra pair of hands in the kitchen, we can't imagine that this Texas father was thinking clearly when he called on his (reportedly eight-year-old) son to don an apron, get in the Popeyes kitchen, and help make sandwiches. A representative from Popeyes informed The Root that the employee who brought their child into the kitchen had been terminated.
November 16, 2019: The inevitable 'SNL' parody
You know it's real when Saturday Night Live gets a hold of it. On the Harry Styles-hosted episode of the long-standing NBC late-night series, an overly ambitious intern (played by Styles) wants to go on a "Lunch Run" and get his bosses the Popeyes chicken sandwich as a celebratory snack. The whole thing divulges into jokes where his (Black) co-workers compare the chicken sandwich craze to "those White Claw seltzers" from the summer. Typical SNL tapping into the mainstream fun.