Al Copeland does not think small. Take his Christmas display. Please. Some people would settle for a two-foot Santa and a couple of plastic reindeer. Al had lights—300,000 of them. And an 18-foot illuminated snowman. Plus taped carols blaring from his balcony. Distressed by the 250,000 gawkers who dropped by, the neighbors sued, to no avail.
Or consider Copeland’s boat. Al was not much of a rower, so he got himself a 50-foot Cougar catamaran with 2,800 horsepower. It cost $600,000 and does around 130 mph, enough to set the American Power Boat Association world speed trials record this year.
So when Copeland, 40, talks about augmenting his Popeyes Famous Fried Chicken chain (world’s third largest in sales) with a slightly higher-priced franchise operation offering the best in Cajun cooking—your Coconut Shrimp, your Blackened Redfish, your Crawfish Étouffé and Rabbit Sauce Piquant—you’d best take him seriously. This may be the start of something big.
Technically, Copeland has been selling Cajun for more than a decade already. He maintains that “the spices made the difference” for his Popeyes chicken empire and credits “the Cajun taste they weren’t used to” for keeping customers coming back. But the flamboyant restaurateur aspires to be more than a noncom Colonel Sanders. Aided by such culinary giants as chefs Warren LeRuth and Paul Prudhomme, Copeland now hopes to sprinkle the continent with spicy Louisiana delicacies in the dollar range previously available only in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The franchises will be called—what else?—Copeland’s.
To their self-made millionaire namesake, the Cajun eateries offer a chance “to see if I can make it again.” Copeland was raised by a grandmother after his mother and his father, a former seafood shop manager, separated. He remembers growing up “poor, not particularly hardworking and not particularly honest” in the New Orleans working-class suburb of Arabi. His education was short on academics (he quit school in the 10th grade) but rich in “red gravies, brown gravies and oyster loaves. And when I got a little older, Barbecued Shrimp and Dixie beer.”
At 16, Copeland lied about his age to get a job in a local supermarket. He found himself “working beside this red-haired kid who was always hustling, busting his ass. Me, I’m just loafing along like an ordinary guy. But his hustling irritates me. So one day I ask, ‘Man, why do you bust your ass like that?’ And he says, ‘I’m the fastest and the best. Not like the rest of you bozos.’ I started watching him, and then I started trying to be the fastest and the best. And it was a kick. In a couple of weeks I was blowing him away.”
In 1963 marriage to a Cajun belle named Mary LeCompte introduced Copeland to two new worlds. One was that of 16-hour workdays—to support his bride, he took a job running an older brother’s donut shop. The second was his in-laws’ cuisine. “They cooked like you couldn’t believe,” he says, still awed. “Crawfish Étouffé. Smothered chicken. Broiled crawfish. Spicy fried chicken.”
Soon Copeland put his two worlds together and came up with the idea of marketing fast-food chicken. “Here I was in a donut shop, breaking my butt, and Kentucky Fried Chicken came in at 11, closed at 8, and was doing four times the business. I said if I can come up with a better-tasting fried chicken, I can beat these guys.”
After trying out more than 100 versions in his home kitchen, Copeland decided to play it safe by promoting speed rather than spices. His first Chicken On The Run shop promised “service so fast you get your chicken with your change”—and it flopped almost as quickly. Copeland reopened four days later, this time with a new, spicy flavor to his birds. He dubbed the outlet Popeyes Mighty Good Chicken, choosing the name because he was impressed by the Popeye Doyle character in the movie The French Connection. A year later, in 1973, when he was opening his second Popeyes, a man walked up to Copeland and told him he’d heard of his restaurant “even though it was on the other side of town.” Copeland quickly changed the name to Popeyes Famous Fried Chicken.
In the years that followed, Cope-land’s marriage failed but Popeyes rapidly climbed the fast-fowl pecking order. By 1975 there were 24 Popeyes in Louisiana. Today there are 450 nationwide, taking in $315 million a year, and as Copeland will tell you—or demonstrate—that’s not chicken feed. “Some people are stuck on not being able to enjoy things,” he says. “Not me.” Nope. The three-story, Italianate-style home he shares with second wife Patty, 29, and three of his five children includes 25 rooms, an indoor kidney-shape swimming pool and a fully equipped gym. Five boats are kept in a pair of boathouses nearby, and in the garage sit two Rolls-Royces, a Jaguar, a Maserati, a Lamborghini and a stretch Caddie.
However Gatsbyesque his recreations, Copeland is dead serious about his calling. After a daily stint in the family gym and a 10-mile bike ride, he works noon to midnight touring his restaurants, taste-testing the chicken and brainstorming with “food technologists” in an ultramodern test kitchen. It was such bull sessions that led to the discovery of a way to preserve and packet the sauces and spices that form the basis of Louisiana cuisine. Realizing the potential of that technique for a franchise operation, he called Warren LeRuth and other local chefs and persuaded them to help put their specialties in shippable form.
Two Copeland’s prototypes are already drawing crowds and raves in New Orleans. To follow up their success and inaugurate the national chain, Copeland will soon open restaurants in New York and San Francisco. And if they succeed, what next? Bisque Bayonne? Jambalaya Juneau? More cars in the Copeland garage? Most likely. Copeland, after all, seems determined to keep his life seasoned with sybaritic pleasures. “I know rich, and I know poor,” he says. “I know what it’s like to be busted, and I don’t want to be there again. It’s my greatest driving force.”