As summer slows down, the internet was well overdue for a new fast-food phenomenon to rally around. The KFC Double Down sandwich — the one with chicken as bread — is long gone, the Doritos shells of Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos are now just a fact of daily life, and despite their valiant efforts, no one is going to want to watch this music video that WaWa made about their hoagies. And so, this year we were left with Popeyes’ new chicken sandwich — an offering that, the fast food franchise ensured us, is supposed to be actually good.
Despite what this claim says about the rest of Popeyes’ menu, the sandwich is a hit. So much so, that yesterday Popeyes announced, via video on Twitter, that they're completely sold out of it. Yes, everywhere. But the clip assures us that soon the sandwiches will make their return as a permanent menu item (and, in the meantime, people are selling the sandwich on eBay, with one delusional soul listing theirs for $5,000.99). Over the weekend, while the sandwiches were still available at most franchises, lines at Popeyes drive-thrus circled the block, entire locations sold out out of the sandwich altogether, and the wait for stores that did have the sandwich sometimes reached 30 minutes. It’s speculated that the mass hysteria over this new sandwich earned the brand $23 million worth of media coverage, and Google Trends shows that over the weekend, “Popeyes” was a more popular search term than “Trump.”
Naturally, this all started on Twitter. Just last week, Popeyes entered a passive aggressive back and forth with Chick-Fil-A, the fast-food chain known for both its relative quality and its founder’s history of virulent homophobia, about who had the better sandwich. What started as a simple photo of the sandwich on Popeyes’ Twitter feed quickly devolved into a feud, with Chick-Fil-A and Popeyes snarking back and forth with every brand from Wendy’s to Shake Shack pointlessly piling on. By the time the weekend arrived, Quavo of the rap group Migos was posting photos of the sandwiches on Instagram, joking that he was selling them for $1,000 each. While what’s now been deemed as the “sandwich wars” will inevitably show up in thousands of PowerPoint presentations given by dorks in corporate marketing departments as a “viral win” meant to be lauded and emulated, for the rest of us, it’s a reminder that corporations will never stop insinuating themselves into our everyday online interactions, because this is just how you generate business in 2019.
Popeyes shares a parent company with Burger King, the fast-food behemoth whose viral successes in recent years can be traced to its chief marketing officer, Fernando Machado. Machado’s most notable campaigns are often unconventional and downright counterintuitive, like if a Nathan for You segment was serious about its aspiration to succeed by failing on purpose. Last December’s “Whopper Detour” led customers to a nearby McDonald’s to get a coupon for a one-cent Whopper on the BK app. This scheme brought the app from number 686 on the app store to number one in just a few days. He was also behind the Proud Whopper, where in honor of Pride 2014 BK introduced a limited-edition whopper, no different than the traditional burger, with rainbow-colored wrapping that read “we are all the same inside.”
Earlier this year, Machado began overseeing Popeyes’ marketing department, hiring on the outside marketing agency Gut, which was launched by former BK creatives. The agency started making a name for itself with its’ Fisher House ad on Veteran’s Day, featuring real veterans reacting to the commodification of the holiday. Gut led the creative strategy behind the high-profile chicken sandwich launch, which included a tongue-in-cheek partnership with the restaurant behind #PopeyesGate in 2017, a South California establishment that was caught using Popeyes chicken in their chicken and waffles plate.
If the sudden success of Popeyes’ chicken sandwich feels unexpected, that may be because largely, fast-food marketing has left left-field stunts behind in favor of attempting to create a more sustainable brand of 24/7 zaniness that infiltrates your entire life. While significant amounts of digital ink have been spilled discussing the way these companies are trying to be your friend on Twitter, the rabbit hole goes much, much deeper. McDonald’s curates Spotify playlists with names like “good vibes only” and “Suena a verano” (Sounds like summer) In August of 2014, Popeyes itself released a Spotify playlist for its Tear’n Tenderloin Chicken limited release, where “fans” could submit their favorite tracks, or submit original music for a chance to be featured. Domino’s in 2015 rolled out “easy order” pizza where a simple tweet with a pizza emoji could automatically have a piping hot pizza to your home. In 2017 they even announced a wedding registry, where weddingoers can gift the newlyweds pizza gift cards ranging from $20 to $100. In 2018, KFC sponsored a Tinder-inspired app around New Zealand’s hit reality dating show, Heartbreak Island, where users could vote on the hottest couples of the week while of course, getting your fix of KFC coupons. And lest we forget, Taco Bell once tried to invent an entirely new meal called the Fourth Meal.
These brands wouldn’t do this stuff if it didn’t work. Weddings and proposals are so common at Taco Bell that Huffington Post called it a trend. Instagram was flooded with photos of the Starbucks Unicorn Drink, which was so popular that there are even tutorials on how to create your own DIY version. In press releases and interviews, fast-food corporations don’t call consumers “customers”; instead, they’re “fans.” Meanwhile, these gimmicks do nothing to ameliorate the larger issues surrounding the fast food economy, from environmental degradation to union-busting. According to PayScale, the average Popeyes employee makes $9.15 an hour. With this sandwich frenzy, they’ll be overworked with no increase in compensation. The wealthy can head to their nearest Popeyes to indulge in a novel, one-off experience. Yet for many low-income neighborhoods quality supermarkets are scarce, and fast-food franchises are often the only option for residents looking to eat a cheap meal.
So: Is this magical Popeyes sandwich actually good? Yes. The sandwich is good. But that’s less important to Popeyes, and probably even its customers, than the novelty of it all, the sensation that they’re participating in a mass cultural event.
On Monday, I headed to my local Popeyes during the post-work rush hour to witness the madness for myself. The drive-through line circled the parking lot, and inside, it took over 20 minutes to get to the cash register. Customers buzzed with excitement, and outside, a group of teens slowed their car by the drive-through to snap a photo of the Popeyes sign. As I waited, I watched a woman scurry through the doors, only to run into someone she knew. “My child called me and said, ‘Stop by Popeyes, I have to try those sandwiches,’” she told her acquaintance. Behind me, I overheard an elderly man remark, “Parece que ese sandwich esta bueno (looks like that sandwich is good).”
A dozen or so people worked the kitchen, preparing one monotonous chicken sandwich after another, only once getting a reprieve in the form of a biscuit order. At the counter, an employee, her grey hair pulled back in a tight bun, clocked out. While she waited for the machine to load her hours, she told the customers waiting by the counter that she’d be walking home today, to get some fresh air between shifts. “I worked 15 hours daily for seven days in a row. They’ll be calling my house in an hour begging me to come back.”