During Popeyes Mania, We Wonder About the True Cost of a Fried-Chicken Sandwich

Popeyes’ new fried chicken sandwich has caused quite a stir. Photo via Tyrgyzistan on Flickr.

Popeyes announced their new fried chicken sandwich on August 12, via Twitter. This set off a digital conversation between faceless fast-food brands extolling the virtues of their respective sandwiches. Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, and Shake Shack all got in on the faux-argument, and all of it seemed to benefit Popeyes, whose sandwich has been selling out around New York City and getting coverage in the New York Times and The New Yorker.

The sandwich costs only $3.99 and, by all accounts, the buttery bun, mayonnaise, pickles, and fried chicken breast come together to make it a delicious, accessible bargain. But as many breathlessly covered it, I became concerned there weren’t some specific questions being asked of its origins. Where does the chicken come from, considering the recent ICE raid at a poultry processing plant in Mississippi? Are the workers at Popeyes locations paid a living wage? Why have food writers decided that because Popeyes’ doesn’t give to homophobic organizations, like Chick-fil-A, that it occupies a higher moral standing despite its questionable sourcing and labor operations?

To understand what it means to serve a local fried-chicken sandwich at a restaurant that takes such issues seriously, I spoke to Evan Hanczor of Williamsburg’s Egg Restaurant about their $15.75 lunch dish.

What do you think of the Popeyes sandwich and its price? What does it say to you about the ingredient quality?
I haven’t had the new Popeyes chicken sandwich, and I’m not positive what it costs, but if the $3.99 price I’ve seen online is right, then their sales price is just above what our food cost is for Egg’s chicken sandwich. It doesn’t give me much confidence about the ingredient quality—we’re not even using the most humanely raised chicken we could for that sandwich (which now, as always, I’m feeling we should try to improve) and I know we still can’t sell it for close to $4. With fries (New York state potatoes) or a salad (Brooklyn Grange greens), our sandwich is $15.75 (so call it $10 for the sandwich itself). It’s a lot of chicken (6 ounces per sandwich), so maybe Popeyes is less than that and that affects the price, but the price doesn’t seem to suggest that they could possibly be sourcing chicken you could consider remotely humanely raised (from very brief internet searching it also appears they’ve refused to commit to certain chicken sourcing standards that even other fast-food businesses have signed on for).

I’m sure it’s delicious. Fast food is engineered to be delicious, and nails fried chicken more often than anything else. I definitely have memories of KFC, Wendy’s, Popeyes, Raising Cane’s—all very fucking delicious. It’s one of many reasons millions of people eat it. 

How are you sourcing and preparing the ingredients in Egg’s sandwich? Why are these things significant to you?
Our chicken sandwich is a slightly different style—it’s breaded with bread crumbs, not a flour coating or batter. That’s basically because we have leftover bread and want always to avoid being wasteful, so we make bread crumbs and bread chicken with it. 

The chicken is from Freebird. They’re cage-free, GAP Level 2, pretty good on the humanely raised front. Could they rate higher on that front, yes, but at the same time we’re trying to keep our food relatively affordable (which I think a $15 sandwich and side that can, from my experience, cover two of your three meals is achieving). We get our whole chickens from Madani Halal, a multi-generational family-owned slaughterhouse in Ozone Park that sources heritage-breed chickens from farmers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which we use for our fried chicken dishes, which is probably a step above; I feel generally good about both sources (especially Madani’s, probably because Imran and his family who own and run it and the fact that we have a personal relationship) though I’m sure we could always do better.

We make the mayonnaise—organic canola oil, Yellow Bell eggs. We make the pickles—organic cucumbers, grown ourselves when we can (like now), organic apple cider vinegar, sugar, spices. The bun is from Amy’s—local grains. Organic and local lettuce. 

The reasons sourcing is important to us could fill a whole piece, but they include everything from supporting local agriculture, environmental responsibility, diversified ownership of food supply, food workers’ rights and workplace conditions, immigration (did everyone forget about the ICE raid at a chicken plant a week before this chicken sandwich frenzy?!), health, and moral concerns including animal welfare. I would say Popeye’s considers or at least acts to improve none of those issues.

What do you think consumers and food media are missing when they laud a fast-food sandwich?
I won’t judge anyone for eating and enjoying the Popeyes sandwich or any other fast-food menu item. The reasons people eat and enjoy any kind of food are too complex to unpack with a broad brush over individual action. The mainly class- and race-based injustices that drive people to consume fast food are real, but dozens of other factors go into food choices for people in every demographic so that’s difficult if not impossible to unpack. And I also don’t see any value in calling out or shaming anyone for really fucking enjoying that sandwich and telling the world about it—everyone deserves a joyful relationship to food.

I just don’t see the value of food media getting in on the praise. I mean, I’m sure the click economics make it worth putting out a piece, but what is the New Yorker or the Times doing running a praise piece on a fast-food sandwich simply on account of it tasting good? Using it to have a discussion on food choice, access, or affordability, production, whatever, I get that. There’s real, active harm being done by fast-food companies on every level of the food system from individual to global. Have you seen the rainforests burning in Brazil? If a really delicious, beautifully constructed, brilliantly seasoned fast-food patty melt sparks a cheeky social media back and forth between the big burger players, next week is everyone going to jump on that bandwagon, too? These companies are pouring millions of dollars into getting their product out and in the buzz; you don’t have to help them do that.

Food is so complicated because it’s so essential but it’s also so messed up, and I just think certain people and publications with privileges that allow them to to know and speak to that reality and shape taste have a responsibility to not ignore that. Like I said I don’t think you can blame anyone for what they eat or enjoy, but I also don’t see how you can praise what these companies are doing. 

How does cost to consumer influence your choices at the restaurant, if at all?
Cost to consumers is a huge consideration to us. Egg started to prove that we could take the ingredients that—14 years ago at least—were pretty much only being served in fine dining restaurants and make them accessible at a more casual meal and at a several-day-a-week price point. We know we don’t hit that for everyone, but we reach a much broader swath of people than other places that source at or near our level. We also wanted to create a workplace that brought integrity and dignity to food service work from pay to culture, something fast food is a famous antithesis to. But yeah, we’re always trying to find the right balance between quality, cost and price. Some people might say we don’t hit that. But we have had a diverse dining room full of tons of regulars from the neighborhood and repeat visitors from around the country and around the world for 14-plus years who make me feel we’re doing something right, and I know it’s always at the front of our minds.

What’s important about a fried chicken sandwich to you and to your restaurant?
A fried chicken sandwich is delicious; it’s accessible. It’s one of my favorite things to eat at Egg, or really anywhere. And I want to serve a version that people can feel good about ordering, whether they care only about how it tastes or about every other thing that goes into it. I’m thrilled that the story of our chicken sandwich can be just that it tastes great. But I’m prouder that the story behind that taste is one worth praising, too.