Popeyes vs. Chick-fil-A

in The Salon by

Whenever we can’t decide on what to have delivered, or it’s the weekend, my wife and I like to drive over to our local Popeyes. We always get the same thing: two spicy chicken sandwiches with fries and Dr. Peppers. It doesn’t take two to go get Popeyes, but my wife comes with me anyhow, mostly to keep me company in the inevitably long drive-thru line, but probably too to make sure I don’t get distracted and mess up the order, as I’m wont to do with even the simplest of routine errands. If she sends me out for toilet paper and batteries, I’ll come back with toilet paper and white chocolate macadamia nut cookies, but no batteries; if she sends me out for oatmilk and eggs, I’ll come back with oatmilk and wine and yogurt-covered pretzels, but no eggs. We usually laugh about it, her rolling her eyes and shaking her head; other times she yells and threatens to divorce me. She once told me to shove a whole rotisserie chicken up my ass after I forgot the green salsa.

The line itself at Popeyes is never that long — not really any longer than I’ve seen at a Chick-fil-A, and definitely not longer than the lines at Portillo’s back home in Chicago — but it’s the wait that’s long. The typical seven-car cue might take about 30 minutes to get processed, and my wife and I usually spend an hour on our trips to Popeyes, from the time we leave till the time we return — though, like I said, the Popeyes is just down the street.

We live in Vegas now, where the living might be too easy, but our trips to Popeyes bring me back to those Chicago days when we would be cast into a creeping river of red brake lights on the Kennedy or Eisenhower, or stranded at a railroad crossing where a massive freight train, as long as the eye can see from left to right, had slowly rolled to a stop. Besides those two examples, and the lines at Six Flags on a scorching summer afternoon, the wait at Popeyes is more excruciating than anything I’ve ever experienced. The wait can be so long, in fact, that I really think Popeyes should start referring to its drive-thru lane as a drive-in: you put your car in Park and listen to a couple dozen songs while you and your companion dream of a spicy-chicken heaven where the orders are served instantly; if you’re smart and planned ahead, then you’ll have packed some snacks to munch on in the car.

During one of our more recent camping trips to the Popeyes drive-in, we saw the car ahead of the car in front of ours leave the line and park. A young black couple climbed out of the Nissan Sentra and swaggered into the establishment, appearing a mere 20 minutes later with Popeyes bags. My wife and I shot each other a glance, making a mental note of it.

On our next trip, catching a shorter line but not wanting to risk anything, I decided to park immediately and head inside. There must’ve been a handful of orders ahead of me, mostly black people, plus an older white roughneck and a couple younger white guys sporting baggy clothes and indecipherable neck tattoos. Because the chicken is so good and the wait is so long, there’s a tension in Popeyes you won’t feel anywhere except in some crowded inner-city McDonald’s after dark. Everybody avoids making eye contact, though everyone in the place is keenly aware of everyone else there, and you get the sense of being watched on all sides.

When my time came, 10 minutes later, I placed my order and stood off near the soda fountain machine to wait another 10 minutes for the food. I spent those 10 minutes people-watching out of the corners of my eyes.

Everybody working behind the counter looked too young to buy a pack of squares; I’d bet the manager, a gangly four-eyed Mennonite girl, couldn’t legally buy a pack of White Claw, though she seemed to be the most mature. The rest of the kids were back there laughing and playing around like a gang of cartoon elves while they readied the orders. No one seemed to be in any particular hurry, except for one brown boy, the only one moving faster than a volunteer’s pace. He was laughing same as the other boys and girls but his hands and feet weren’t, and I saw beads of sweat glistening on his broad brown forehead.

There was only one visibly adult person back there: a 50ish brownish Asian man, possibly Laotian or Muong, dressed business-sloppy in a wrinkled olive button-up shirt, grey slacks and worn-out work shoes like a mule’s hooves, standing behind a brownish Asian boy working the fryer. The man’s face was completely asymmetrical, one eye lower than the other, his nose twisted into an S, his mouth practically vertical, like a Mr. Potato Head arranged by a kindergartner. Being a bit racist, at first I thought the man was one of those Asian helicopter parents shadowing his slavish son at work to make sure the boy’s performance met the highest of Asian-parent standards. A part of me still thinks so, since he never left the Asian boy’s back the whole time I was there, but most of me now assumes the man had to be the franchisee keeping an eye on his teenaged money-makers. A whiteboard hanging above the employee time clock read: “P.S. NO OVER-TIME !!”

After the second 10-minute wait my name was called, I grabbed the goodies, and left. In and out of Popeyes in only 20 minutes! I’ll never bother with their drive-in again.

I wouldn’t bother waiting 20 minutes for a chicken sandwich to begin with, if it weren’t the best goddamned fast-food chicken sandwich in America — hands down. I know the preference between Popeyes and its rival Chick-fil-A is more controversial than that between Democrats and Republicans, but there’s no denying that, while one has a cleaner, higher quality of chicken, the other has much more flavor and really satisfies a starved soul.

Taste aside, the main difference between Popeyes and Chick-fil-A is the customer service. The drive-thru line at Chick can be just as long as the one at Popeyes, but the line moves way quicker, and sometimes they’ll even have a perky blonde boy or girl out there taking orders to get the line moving even faster. If there’s a wait at the window, which there rarely is, then they’ll have the blonde girl working the window ask you about your day or your plans for the upcoming weekend; the girl is so friendly and pretty and white that it feels inappropriate to be chatting with her like that, especially with my equally pretty wife (even prettier! I mean) riding shotgun, so I keep my answers short and my smiling and blushing to a minimum.

I don’t mean to imply that Chick-fil-A only hires peppy Aryans, but whenever we go, which used to be a lot, there’s usually one standing out in the drive-thru, or at the window, or behind the counter, or bringing food out to the tables, or one going around asking customers how they’re doing. And it’s usually bright and sunny at Chick-fil-A, though admittedly I’ve only been to Popeyes at night.

However you might feel about the owner of Chick-fil-A and his personal views, you have to admit that Bible-hugging homophobe has his company running like a well-oiled machine. The flow of customers in and out is more orderly and timely than the trains in Germany or Japan. I only wish Mr. Cathy did business on Sundays, but I understand: God first, chicken second — though, as a black Puerto Rican atheist myself, my priorities are slightly different.

Popeyes still boasts the better chicken sandwich by taste, but Chick-fil-A out earns Popeyes three-to-one, raking in over nine billion dollars last year. And anyone who’s been to both quickly sees why that is. To put it bluntly, Popeyes needs to run themselves more like Chick-fil-A, learn a bit from Chick’s work ethic and business culture, skipping over the religious fundamentalism. Popeyes can’t be satisfied with simply having the tastier sandwich; they should strive to have the better operation, too. No more drive-in, and none of this “Bring Your Own Bun” business!

Popeyes has the chicken sandwich that the people want; they just need to do a better job of selling it.

Hector is the editor and publisher of Enclave. A Chicago writer now floating on the edge of Las Vegas, he is also the former deputy editor for Latino Rebels, as well as the former managing editor for Gozamos, a Latino art-activism site based in his home town. He has contributed to RedEye, a Chicago daily geared toward millennials, and La Respuesta, a New York-based site for the Puerto Rican Diaspora, plus a number of publications, including The Huffington Post. He studied history (for some reason) at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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