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Chain LeaderEditorial Archives2005 — September — Multiple Choice

Multiple Choice
Kirk Waisner tries alternatives to Popeyes’ bone-in fried chicken to boost traffic and reclaim sales.

Kirk Waisner, vice president of menu development at Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, says boneless chicken will help the chain increase traffic and frequency.

As a new core-menu category, Naked Chicken Strips have added incrementally to Popeyes’ overall chicken-strip sales.

Guests felt Popeyes’ Chicken Deluxe sandwich was “significantly better” than the Po’ Boy sandwich that preceded it.

Popeyes’ newest side dish, green beans seasoned with smoky pork flavoring, was such a hit with TV host David Letterman, he talked about it on his show for a week. “We sent a team over to the show to serve the beans to the entire audience,” Waisner says.

Spicy BBQ Wings rose to the top of the wing varieties Popeyes has tested thus far.

Ten years in research and development at packaged-foods giant Nabisco taught chef Kirk Waisner a thing or two about consumer analysis. Want to know if your crackers are cheesy enough, salted just right and not too greasy? Don’t just give customers one or two crackers: “You give ’em a whole box and tell them to evaluate taste after they’ve munched a bunch in front of the TV,” Waisner says. “You have to build your testing to the real-world situation.”

The ability to apply practical insights like these to product testing in a QSR setting—and an undying curiosity about the way things work—earned Waisner the December 2004 appointment as Popeyes Chicken& Biscuits’ first-ever vice president of menu development.

“I’ve always been attracted to the science of food,” says Waisner, who worked as a chemical engineer for an oil company, followed by chef training at the Culinary Institute of America and high-profile jobs running kitchens for Larry Forgione and Jonathan Waxman, before moving into product R&D. “I’m also interested in how customers think,” he says. “Product development lets me delve into both: analyzing what and why consumers want certain foods, and then how to achieve the right combinations of ingredients that deliver.”

Diverse Strategies
Topping Popeyes’ culinary team with Waisner’s analytical leadership is a tactic the company hopes will result in a passel of perfectly targeted new products—crucial at this juncture of Popeyes’ growth. A year after Atlanta-based parent AFC Enterprises divested of all distractions, selling Seattle’s Best Coffee, Cinnabon and Church’s, the company is relentlessly pursuing continued gains in same-store sales with a focus on lunch and more portable chicken products. Thirteen consecutive periods of domestic same-store-sales gains have added up to company projections of 2 percent to 3 percent comps for 2005.

Popeyes is the nation’s second largest chicken chain with 1,826 units, behind leader KFC, but Chick-fil-A is No. 2 in sales. And with burger chains leading the industry in chicken sandwich and chicken side-item sales, “you see why diversifying to a lot more than chicken on the bone is vital for Popeyes,” says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies for WD Partners, a Columbus, Ohio-based multiunit design and development firm. “More portable, eat-in-the-car items, high-flavor-profile products as well as perceived ‘better for me’ products will help Popeyes increase their sales. The trick is, can they execute well enough to communicate, ‘We have variety and quality,’ consistently?”

Waisner hopes to prove he and his culinary team can. Over the last six months, Popeyes did a lot of research to determine how to get customers back more often. “We evaluated where guests are eating their chicken products, what sorts of things they wanted that we weren’t offering, those types of issues,” he says.

While Waisner says guests are happy with Popeyes’ core product—bone-in chicken accounts for 40 percent of sales—customers indicated they wanted more alternatives and suggested that more portable products would encourage increased visits during the week. “Lunch was the biggest thing we knew we wanted to build on,” he says.

Sandwich Setup
Waisner’s main focus for 2005 will be an upgraded line of chicken sandwiches featuring a boneless, whole-muscle fillet.

“Bone-in chicken got us where we are today, and we’re always looking for new ways to drive core product,” says Chief Marketing Officer Rob Calderin. “But we see boneless-chicken products as having the greatest potential to increase traffic and bring current guests in for more visits.”

The new Chicken Deluxe sandwich, $3.49 to $3.99, will roll out systemwide in October, replacing Popeyes Po’ Boys, $3.29 to $3.79. Available in New Orleans Spicy or Classic Mild, the Chicken Deluxe layers a breaded and fried whole-muscle fillet, leaf lettuce, a tomato slice and a new mayo-based spread on a French-bread-style artisan bun.

“The key differences with this sandwich compared to the Po’ Boy is that the Po’ Boy featured breaded and fried whole-muscle strips and shredded lettuce with no tomato,” Waisner says. As well, the new sandwich’s bread “is a close cousin to the Po’ Boy bread but has a darker, shinier finish.”

While not authorized to release product mix numbers, Waisner says the sandwich sold well in a company-store test in April and customers consider the new sandwich to be substantially better than the Po’ Boy.

Waisner has three more sandwiches featuring the whole-muscle fillet in test including some nonbreaded items planned as limited-time offers in 2006. “Basically we’re filling the pipeline with more products tailored to what customers are telling us they want,” he says.


Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits

Parent Company
AFC Enterprises, Atlanta
2004 Systemwide Sales
$1.54 billion
2005 Systemwide Sales
$1.58 billion*
Average Check
Expansion Plans

130 in 2005

*Chain Leader estimate

Waisner’s four-person culinary team develops new products at Popeyes on a project basis. Each project is assigned a team leader. “And while each member of our culinary team has a different strength, they all have opportunities to lead projects,” Waisner says. “One of our chefs has a tremendous amount of experience with New Orleans cuisine and what Popeyes has done historically. Another is a food scientist. A third is an expert at product procurement, and the fourth, at making ideas work operationally.”

Waisner meets weekly with the team to discuss each project’s progress and also serves on a separate, cross-functional team to keep operations and training in the loop.

Strips and Wings
Beyond sandwiches, Waisner and team’s earliest 2005 development project was a new core-menu item launched in February: Naked Chicken Strips, $2.99 to $3.49, a fried, nonbreaded, low-carb alternative to breaded strips.

“Naked Strips are cut from whole-muscle fillets, marinated and then fried,” Waisner explains. “We see this as a product that fits really well with our New Orleans heritage.” Strips are seasoned with a variation on a spice formula the chain has used for roasted chicken in the past. The most recent to market, Blackened Naked Chicken Strips, $2.99 to $3.49, featuring Paul Prudhomme-branded seasoning, were Popeyes’ April LTO. Other varieties such as a Buffalo-style version are also being tested.

Keeping menu boards popping, Waisner and team produced several more LTOs. May’s Southwest Shrimp promotion centered on popcorn shrimp seasoned with chile-lime-cilantro flavoring and served with spicy dipping sauce and Cajun fries for $3.49 to $3.99. Breaded, fried and sauced to order, Spicy BBQ Wings, $2.99, went into stores as an LTO in September. And Popeyes’ annual crawfish promotion featuring a basket of breaded and fried crawfish tails with Cajun fries and biscuit, $3.99 to $4.99, and its signature Crawfish Étouffée seasonal entree kicks off in November.

Of all these, Waisner says the wings are most significant. “We really want to participate in the boom in wing usage. We’ve tested whole wings before, but this is the first time we’ve made a move to market wing segments with hopes to get them on to the core menu,” he explains. “We’ve got quite a bit under way with a variety of potential signature flavors we hope to feature in upcoming LTOs.”

One more menu category still under wraps? Salads. Slightly less than 10 percent of Popeyes’ system offers salad, but the company has never had salad on the core menu systemwide. “We’re taking another close look at this now,” says Waisner, who is testing salads topped with customers’ choice of protein.

For 2005, Waisner says meeting customer desires for solid basics like salads and sandwiches brings satisfaction, but hints, “What’s really exciting is what comes next. We’ve gotten through all of this consumer testing, and there were some surprises. We identified a lot of additional potential signature items that were a bit more out of the box and unique for Popeyes. If that’s what customers tell us they’re interested in, that’s where we’ll go.”


Chicken Deluxe: boneless, whole-muscle fillet, breaded and fried, served with mayo spread, leaf lettuce and tomato on French-bread-style bun. Choice of Classic Mild or New Orleans Spicy, $3.49 to $3.99

Side Dishes
Green Beans, seasoned with pork flavoring, $1.39
Red Beans and Rice, $1.39

Bone-in Chicken Plate: breaded and fried, New Orleans Spicy or Classic Mild, served with choice of side dish and buttermilk biscuit, $3.89 to $5.19
Naked Chicken Strips:
marinated, seasoned and fried whole-muscle fillet strips, with dipping sauce, $2.99 to $3.49

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