“It’s incredibly important to maintain flavor,” she says. “That’s what people expect from us. You can get fried chicken from a lot of different places, but in order to call it a Popeyes product, it has to have that slowly saturated, marinated flavor that we provide.”
But at times that flavor can pose operational challenges. Few consumers know that the brand marinates its fried menu items for at least 12 hours before they are hand battered and hand breaded—all in the store. And menu extensions like the newly introduced crawfish require entirely separate stations for preparation in the kitchen’s small footprint.
“There’s a lot of handwork and a lot of hand preparation, then you’re letting it sit and steep in the flavors and the seasonings in the cooler,” Alarcón says. “But we try to have the product up and ready when you walk in the door, so that we can very quickly service your order.”
That’s why the company calls it a paradox.
Unfortunately, Popeyes has more than just small footprints and quick service times to contend with—it also has to educate consumers about all that goes into creating its products. In an age when the quick-service industry seems to be dividing into two camps—smaller chains that offer healthy, local, organic, high-priced menu options and large, national chains that deliver consistent, traditional, cost-efficient foods—Popeyes is finding it falls somewhere in between.
“We start with chicken that’s 100 percent natural, bring it into the restaurant, it’s not injected, there’s not salt water added or phosphate,” she says, prefacing the explanation by saying Popeyes goes against the industry grain and doesn’t boast about the quality of its chicken. “We bring it into the restaurant and we marinate it by hand.”
These steps seem simple enough, but when repeated thousands of times a day across the U.S. and 26 countries, it’s clear why convincing consumers that Popeyes is just as authentic as fried chicken on Bourbon Street might be difficult. Marketing executives have tackled that challenge by launching a new spokeswoman for the brand. “Annie the Chicken Queen” is a sassy, tell-it-like-it-is marketing tactic to give consumers straight talk about the new brand.
Alarcón, on the other hand, chooses to stay focused on the food, making training those in the stores’ kitchens a top priority. “We work diligently with the training department to make sure the message gets out there through written materials,” she says. “We do a lot of work with videos to teach people how to make products.”
Keeping steps simple and instructions clear are keys to Alarcón’s menu success. When asked if she’s ever created a recipe that was too intricate to be rolled out, she laughs. “Of course, that’s part of just good product development—trying to make things easily communicated,” she says.
That’s not to say that Alarcón doesn’t tap into new culinary trends or keep an eye on emerging influences. “Street food is coming up fast and furious,” she says of the trends she’s watching. The Los Angeles Kogi Korean BBQ concept, a mobile Asian-fusion quick serve headed by young star chef Roy Choi, is the one other brand besides Popeyes that she mentions in the entire interview.