WASHINGTON, D.C. — Most days, a fast food line that’s 50 diners deep would send time-strapped D.C. professionals looking for quieter lunch spots. But two days after the return of the elusive Popeyes chicken sandwich, people flocked to the chain’s Dupont location, excited to get a taste of the hype.
Once inside the restaurant, however, the crowd’s mood began to sour.
A chaotic in-store experience
The Restaurant Dive team stood in line for more than 30 minutes before reaching the register, which was manned by only one employee. Behind the counter in the food prep area, a second staff member rushed to cram sandwiches and side dishes into paper bags as three workers fried up the next batch in an endless stream of orders. Staff looked harried, and shouted order numbers and updates to one another to be heard. There were no pleasantries or “please” and “thank yous” at the counter.
A tidy line outside the door of the small space became a lumpy zig-zag that forked into two inside, and patrons craned their necks to see which section they were supposed to order from. Employees made no effort to rectify the confusion.
Eventually, we could see that people on the right side of the crowd were holding receipts, waiting for orders they had already placed in store. Others glanced at their phones and refreshed the Popeyes mobile app, checking to see if the food they purchased online would be ready soon.
Restaurant Dive tried to place an order for pickup on Popeyes website before leaving the office, but after creating an account and selecting menu items, we couldn’t choose a specific order time. Instead, users are supposed to purchase their meals in advance and then click a button that says “I’m here” on Popeyes' mobile app once they enter the restaurant so the order can be prepared in real time.
Frustrated with the website’s confusing interface and the number of digital touchpoints necessary to place the order, we opted to buy the sandwich the old-fashioned way.
The mobile option may not have saved us time, however. One group complained that they had been waiting for their pickup meal for more than 40 minutes, and DoorDash and Postmates couriers were turned away by staff who said the orders they had come to collect were not showing up in the store’s POS system.
The mobile app issue doesn't appear to be linked just to the sandwich relaunch. Popeyes app has only 2.2 out of 5 stars in Apple’s App Store, with consumer reviews from October complaining of long wait times for mobile orders placed for pickup, delivery issues and trouble loading the app itself.
During our wait, a group in front of us left the line, deciding to return another day when the excitement around the sandwich dies down. Meanwhile, patrons grumbled about the wait times, lack of organization and wondered aloud if the sandwich would be worth the hassle.
Other patrons had better luck with digital ordering.
“It was very easy,” customer Rita Nichols told Restaurant Dive. “I passed someone with a bag — I work down on 14th Street — and she said order online and you have to stand in line. I’ve been here like five minutes and [an employee is] already calling my name.”
After placing our order, we waited another 10 to 15 minutes to receive our food: two classic chicken sandwiches, one spicy chicken sandwich and a side of Cajun fries. Patrons jostled one another to reach the counter and check if their number had been called, and the crowd blocked the soda machines.
Petunia Veney, who bought a Popeyes chicken sandwich for the first time, called her experience waiting in line “traumatic” and said she wouldn’t be returning “any time soon.”
But some weren’t fazed by the chaos. Chris Lee and Faisal Mahmood had attempted to buy the Popeyes chicken sandwich when it first launched, but supply ran out before they could try it. They spent most of their lunch break in line Tuesday for their second attempt. Lee said this was his first Popeyes visit in over a decade, but Mahmood eats at the chain often.
“I think we expected this,” Mahmood said. “We walked by yesterday and saw a line outside the restaurant. Maybe I expected slightly better.”
When we received our food, our order was correct and the menu items were still warm — and, it’s important to note, delicious — but the end-to-end experience had taken nearly an hour.
Will Chick-fil-A's operational expertise protect it?
Popeyes has pitted itself against Chick-fil-A since the first launch of its chicken sandwich in August, fueling the flames of the “chicken sandwich wars” on social media and building a marketing campaign out of quippy digs at the Atlanta chain.
The tactic worked. Popeyes saw a 218% spike in diner traffic in the days following the sandwich rollout, and traffic held steady even after the menu item sold out. Since the sandwich returned this past Sunday — an overt swing at the faith-based chain — Popeyes drive-thru lines have spilled onto freeways and blocked oncoming cars, and a man was killed in a dispute over cutting the line.
Patrons are also reporting that some locations have already sold out of the product only days after its relaunch. This is bad news for Popeyes, which had months to replenish reserves and ensure the chain was operationally prepared for a second influx of sandwich traffic. During the first go-round, employees reported that they were understaffed and couldn’t accommodate demand, working 10- to 12-hour days on end and subject to angry outbursts from customers.
Sun Holdings, which operates about 150 Popeyes restaurants, told Bloomberg in October that it was hiring 400 additional employees and considering dedicating two staff members per store to making the sandwich, for example.
For all of Popeyes’ preparation, however, our experience was still very frustrating. From the online order attempt to the in-store wait, it was also leagues behind the operational efficiency that Chick-fil-A typically offers.
Visibly stressed staff, and the fact that only one employee was working at the register — a fraction of the consumer-facing workforce found at a typical Chick-fil-A restaurant — signal that Popeyes’ spike in popularity could be a flash in the pan rather than a bid for greater market share.
Though the chain’s footprint of 3,000 U.S. stores tops Chick-fil-A’s 2,700 units across the U.S. and Canada, the restaurant doesn’t seem to have the infrastructure, employee training or digital ordering capabilities in place to deliver a consistent, efficient and memorable customer experience. Popeyes did not respond to Restaurant Dive’s requests for comment on their operational preparations for the chicken sandwich’s second rollout.
Chick-fil-A, on the other hand, has been heavily investing in technology to further optimize its offering.
The chain is already outfitted with double drive-thrus manned by employees with tablets to take orders when the line is long and a robust mobile app and loyalty program that offers frequent rewards. Just a few weeks ago, Chick-fil-A also launched dine-in mobile ordering that lets guests order from their table instead of waiting in line. Guests place their orders through the Chick-fil-A app and tap their smartphone to a table number, and a staff member brings the corresponding order to their table.
The service is available nationwide at participating locations, which is bad news for Popeyes. Though the chain’s mobile ordering feature looks similar to Chick-fil-A’s dine-in service on paper — aside from the tech-integrated table numbers — Popeyes' clunky digital journey and lack of a mobile pickup option where diners can select their pickup times will make it hard to compete.
Chick-fil-A’s unique blend of top-of-the-line customer service and speed have also secured deep loyalty from diners, who have ranked the chain No. 1 in brand intimacy among QSRs. It’s also why its revenue is almost double that of Popeyes and its sister chains under Restaurant Business International combined. Last year, Chick-fil-A raked in $10.5 billion in revenue, compared to RBI’s total revenue of $5.4 billion. Alone, Popeyes earned $3.7 million in revenue for the period.
Between its financial dominance, superior store experience and strong brand loyalty, it will be hard for Popeyes’ chicken sandwich, no matter how tasty, to ruffle Chick-fil-A’s feathers.