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QSR Feature
Off the Menu

While the heritage of Louisiana food is rich with spices, color, and Creole influences, Alarcón’s challenges as a quick-serve culinary executive remain fundamental—how to fill missing dayparts and how her recipes can be recreated at the brand’s nearly 2,000 stores.

As a result, while Top Chef–style novices open stores offering Kobe beef and artisan cheese, she is focused on results. “You can’t start with a brainstorming process, you’ve got to start with a strategy first,” she says of her menu-innovation process. “The world’s full of a million ideas, but if you have an idea without a strategy, it’s not going to go very far.”

Alarcón is a culinary realist. She factors in proposed price points, food costs, prep times, and dayparts to create menu items that have staying power in the new brand. “You can’t just run off and start developing a bunch of products,” she says.

Although it’s clear nothing scares her in the kitchen, Alarcón did open up about two of the biggest issues facing the company—KFC’s new grilled chicken and the impending sodium crackdown facing quick serves.

Too smart to even say her competitor’s name during the interview, Alarcón admits that when she first heard of its foray into grilling, “I think everybody stopped for a moment and said, ‘OK, should we be considering this?’” Instead of playing catch-up, she has focused her efforts on overcoming the Popeyes Paradox—bringing slow-cooked food to consumers fast.

“The paradox, of course, is that behind the scenes in the back of the house, there’s a fair bit of labor and preparation to get it to that point [at the counter],” she says. “Obviously, being in a fried-food venue helps a lot because it’s already staged, it’s already prepared, and we’re just ready to fill the order when people come in.”

On the sodium front, she describes the task of lowering the amount of salt in the brand’s products as “a great challenge,” comparing it to solving a mystery. As the brand’s Sherlock Holmes, Alarcón is actively working with the company’s suppliers, putting pressure on them to find out how to deliver the flavor profile the company has so confidently championed but in a lower-sodium format.

“The challenge with the Big Easy Bowl was to take the most famous recipes that we have at Popeyes—we like to consider the red beans and rice as somewhat of a cult favorite for side items—and make a full meal out of it. Yet make it portable and make it affordable.

“So we came up with a Big Easy Bowl, which has a base of red beans and rice and then we take our chicken, the bone-in fried chicken, and we pull the meat off the bone and we toss it in a fantastic Cajun gravy that’s full of bell peppers and pesto and all kinds of wonderful flavors and textures. And then we mix all that together, we put it over the red beans and rice, and we top it with a little shredded cheddar and jack cheese just to give it a little more richness. On the side we give you packets of Louisiana hot sauce and sour cream to kind of balance it out. A little bit of extra heat if you so desire and then the cooling effect of the sour cream to kind of bring it all together.”

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