Rarely does a new fast food item make as much of a splash as Popeyes’ chicken sandwich. It was launched in the U.S. last August and even though it wasn’t available here, the hype spread north of the border with Canadians clamoured to their Popeyes outlet asking if they could get The Sandwich.
Finally, starting Sept. 14 the sandwich will be rolled out at more than 230 Popeye’s locations in Canada. I had the sandwich back in February (humble brag) when I was in New Jersey. It was fine. The spicy version was better than the original. The hype died down by then and the other two or three people in line didn’t order it.
To understand virality of sandwich is to trace it back to its beginnings in August 2019 and look at the complicated relationships it has with our food systems and communities.
It all started with a California restaurant called Sweet Dixie Chicken that served as a testing ground for a new chicken sandwich from Popeyes: a fried chicken filet, pickles and spiced mayo sandwiched in a soft brioche bun. It came in spicy and nonspicy versions. On Aug. 12 it was available at all the Popeyes restaurants in America.
Then came the headlines and glowing reviews. Popeyes already had a following, with many declaring it superior to KFC due to its crunchier skin and spicier flavour. “The Popeyes chicken sandwich is here to save America,” the New Yorker wrote. It was hard to escape the news even though Canadians couldn’t get their hands on it.
Naturally, the sandwich started to sell out nationwide shortly after it was introduced. Photos of long lines and “sold out” signs hastily taped to the doors of Popeyes restaurants made the rounds on Twitter. “Some LA Popeyes are reportedly selling out of chicken sandwiches,” reports the Los Angeles Times and “15 minutes to ‘mayhem’: how a tweet led to a shortage at Popeyes,” said a headline in the New York Times. The sandwich became a coveted item due to its scarcity.
The sandwich came at a good time too. At the time consumers were looking for an alternative to Chick-fil-A due to the chicken chain’s history of donating to charities with anti-LGBTQ beliefs.
But like anything with it comes to food, things got complicated.
A photo of an exhausted Popeyes employee sitting on bench outside the restaurant went viral later that August, prompting memes and jokes on Twitter. It steered the conversation to how fast food workers are treated within the industry, who exactly was benefitting from the success of the sandwich and what does it take to create a sandwich that costs $4USD at the time.
The people running the restaurants and dealing with impatient customers were getting cramps from the long hours, but still made $10USD an hour, reported Vox. A man was also killed in an altercation outside a Popeyes in Maryland for apparently cutting in line for the sandwich.
Discussions of the relationship between Popeyes and African-American communities also popped up. In a piece for BET, writer Andrew McCaskill noted Popeyes’ popularity within Black communities and how their enthusiasm for the sandwich helped cement the sandwich as a certified hit. The question he poses is that if Black America helped propel Popeyes to become the king of chicken sandwiches (either as customers or employees), does the company have a responsibility to give back to Black communities?
Old racial stereotypes also popped up, as memes about Black people preferring to line up for a sandwich rather than the voting booth came up on Twitter. It fuelled racist tropes and ignored a long history of voter suppression within Black communities in America.
It’s been a year since the initial sandwich hype and public opinions surrounding food has shifted amidst COVID-19. The words “front-line workers” and “pandemic pay” are part of our everyday lexicon. Systemic racism and wealth inequality more widely discussed. Many are also ordering from their favourite independent restaurants as much as possible to keep them afloat for however long this pandemic lasts (the Star compiled a list of its favourite Canadian owned chicken sandwich spots across the country last year). A lot has changed since the sandwich’s original debut.
Food has always been a complicated issue, intertwined with politics, culture, economics and history. Few things, if any, can be eaten without an airplane-sized worth of baggage attached it to. Fast food isn’t going anywhere, and I do order it from time to time. But to understand the hype is to get behind it. Whether you plan on ordering the sandwich or not, it’s good to know why its arrival in Canada is being made into such a big deal.
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