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Internet Culture and a Chick-Fil-A Feud Helped Popeyes Reach Unprecedented Cultural Relevance and Become a Top-5 Franchise

The chicken chain has undergone massive changes over the past two years, helping Popeyes reach the top five of our Franchise 500 ranking.

This story appears in the January 2022 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Started franchising: 1976 Total units: 3,575 Cost to open: $383.5K-$3.5M

Courtesy of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen

Popeyes gets fried chicken, but just as importantly it's got a bead on internet culture.

"Over the past two years, there's been a lot of change here," says Jourdan Daleo, vice president of franchising and business development at Popeyes. "We've had more success than any other time in history."

It all started in 2019 with the launch of Popeyes' fried chicken sandwich, which — following an online Twitter feud with Chick-fil-A, spurred long lines, extensive internet discourse, and deep fandom — propelled Popeyes to unprecedented cultural relevance. One of its most prominent fans was Megan Thee Stallion, a hip-hop artist who famously introduced the phrase "hot girl summer" to American vernacular.

Related: Popeyes' New Collaboration With Megan Thee Stallion Just Broke the Internet

That's why this past October Popeyes announced its collaboration with Megan to launch the brand's Hottie Sauce, a spicy-sweet condiment that accompanies Popeyes' new nuggets (which take inspiration from the internet-­breaking chicken sandwich). Oh, and Megan is now a Popeyes franchise owner.

As Popeyes continued to make a home in the cultural consciousness, rising demand for franchise ownership helped the company achieve staggering growth for the first half of 2021. That has helped the brand reach the highest Franchise 500 ranking in company history, up one spot from No. 4 last year.

But there's more to the brand than a knack for capitalizing on cultural moments. Its growth comes in line with a handful of improvements to franchise infrastructure, including major digitization efforts.

Related: How Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen Uses Viral Marketing to Create Explosive Growth

New restaurant designs feature kiosks, QR codes, and streamlined mobile order pickup, while app and delivery business, which were virtually nonexistent two years ago, have improved the experience of mobile ordering and tracking deliveries. Also within its app, Popeyes unveiled its first-ever loyalty program last year. Popeyes Rewards uses a points-based system to incentivize returning customers with access to deals, celebrations, member experiences, swag, $1 happy hour sides, and more.

All this has strengthened an already-loved brand. "This is just the beginning for Popeyes," Daleo says, "as we embark on a journey to become the most loved chicken brand in the world."

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