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Why Popeyes is still out of fried chicken sandwiches

The Popeyes sandwich shortage, explained.

A Popeyes on August 30, after the dreaded shortage hit.
AFP/Getty Images

Across the nation, Popeyes locations are hung with homemade signs reading “no chicken sandwiches :(” and “do apologize we out [sic] chicken sandwich” and simply “SANDWICH SOLD OUT.” The fried chicken chain is very sorry, but it has no more sandwiches to sell.

Popeyes announced the shortage on Twitter on August 27, eight days after a tweet from rival Chick-fil-A (and a pointed “...y’all good?” in response) set off a social media melee that pitted chicken sandwich against chicken sandwich and sent customers to the restaurants in droves. For Chick-fil-A, the spike in demand from the so-called #ChickenWars wasn’t an issue — apart from french fries and soft drinks, sandwiches are the company’s (brioche) bread and butter and have been since the recipe was introduced in 1967.

But for Popeyes, the sandwich is a new menu item, released only two weeks before the supply ran dry. It was in development for two years, according to the Wall Street Journal, as the company’s chefs tested various iterations of buttermilk batter, boneless chicken breast filets, sour pickles, and buttered brioche buns. In planning for its launch, Popeyes “aggressively forecasted demand through the end of September,” the company said in a statement, but ultimately it blew through the inventory of chicken filets a month ahead of schedule.

In response to a follow-up question about when it expects the sandwich to be available again, a Popeyes spokesperson said it doesn’t “have a date to share at this time — but are working to get the sandwich back in restaurants as soon as possible!” One Nashville Twitter user, however, posted a photo of a sign reading “no sandwiches till Oct.,” suggesting the chain may not be able to restock ahead of its original timeline.

In the meantime, the shortage is causing chaos for some employees (many of whom have already reported being pushed to the brink of exhaustion by the frenzy): In Houston, a group of customers pulled a gun on a Popeyes manager after being informed that the sandwich was sold out, and in Tennessee, a man is suing the company for “false advertising” and “deceptive business practices.”

While these may be particularly extreme reactions, in an age of Amazon Prime free one-day shipping and apps that offer the ability to find a car or a date in a matter of minutes, the idea of having to wait more than a month for a coveted item to be replenished may seem like a relic of the past — so much so that some have questioned whether the shortage may, in fact, be a marketing tactic, rather than a genuine lack of supply. (Though the CEO of Popeyes parent company Restaurant Brands International denied this theory in an interview with CNN.)

According to Aaron Allen, CEO of the restaurant consultancy Aaron Allen & Associates, “quick-service restaurants have long used scarcity in their promotional tool kit,” but in this case, there may be more to the issue than just marketing.

On average, he says, it takes a restaurant like Popeyes 18 months to put out a new menu, and ramping up production on a given product is a process that takes layers of approvals, paperwork (often, yes, with literal paper), and considerable risk on the part of the company’s decision-makers. The company has more than 2,400 locations, the vast majority of which are franchises, making it one of the biggest fried chicken chains in the country.

”If you’re filling a thousand restaurants with inventory, that’s millions and millions of dollars worth of product, and you’re telling the franchisees, ‘You’ve got to move faster than you’ve moved before because we’ve got to get this in.’ You’re going to get some resistance and pushback — not from the guests but from the internal structures,” he says. Buy too much, and you’re left with excess inventory and forced to take a loss; buy too little, and you’re in the situation Popeyes seems to be in right now.

As Bloomberg noted, the shortage is particularly noteworthy given the glut of supply in the US market. With poultry companies expected to process a record 43.3 billion pounds of chicken this year, per government data, one would think Popeyes should be able to procure enough filets to feed the entire internet, but the reality is more complex.

”It comes down to the specifications of a certain product. Restaurant chains, particularly fast-food enterprises, don’t head to the big conglomerates, such as Tyson, and buy up massive chicken breasts,” wrote the restaurant supply chain consultancy Consolidated Concepts in a blog post about the shortage. “Their products are often made for quick turnaround and include breading, seasonings, or a specific size that requires additional processing.”

And while Popeyes could no doubt push its suppliers to work overtime to get the ingredients to its franchises faster, says Allen, it would come at a cost, and the chain may be reluctant to sacrifice margin for speed. Still, he says, restaurants today should be investing in technology that allows them to scale faster and meet demand. “It’s surprising that they’re having this much difficulty pulling it off actually, because it’s less about availability — it’s not like they’re manufacturing moon rock.”

This isn’t the only supply-chain debacle to hit the industry in recent years; in February 2018, KFC was forced to temporarily close about 800 of its 900 UK restaurants after a logistics blunder caused it to run out of chicken. In that case, the company blamed its delivery partner, to which it had switched just a few weeks prior. It apologized with a full-page ad in several British newspapers that read, “A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal. Huge apologies to our customers, especially those who traveled out of their way to find we were closed.”

Popeyes’ tone was somewhat less conciliatory, offering, “We hear y’all,” and entreating customers to download its app to “be the first to know” when the sandwich comes back. (A move that seems to have inadvertently drawn attention to said app’s poor reviews and two-star rating on the App Store.)

Internally, says Allen, the company’s team is likely divided on the success of the launch. “Marketing is high-fiving each other and supply chain is getting dirty looks and management is in between trying to weigh out the pros and cons of what’s happened with it.”

For now, it seems that Popeyes — the insurgent on the chicken sandwich field — has claimed victory on social media, generating $65 million in earned media value in the first two weeks after the item launched, according to Apex Marketing Group. But whether it comes out on top, in the end, is still a matter of question.

To paraphrase former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was also an army general, “You will not find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even chicken-sandwich wars have been won or lost primarily because of logistics.”

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