Taste-Testing Popeyes’ New Cajun Fish Sandwich
(Bloomberg) -- At the Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen outpost on 14th Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, the sandwich quietly came onto the menu.
“On Tuesday, we sold two. We sold six or seven on Wednesday,” said a Popeyes employee working the counter. But Thursday, the Georgia-based chain fired the first shot in a new fast-food war with its official nationwide roll-out of a new crispy Cajun flounder sandwich.
To entice customers, the fast-food chain is offering 15 cents ‘sandwich insurance’ that allows people to trade in the $4.49 fish order for its blockbuster chicken sandwich—a no-risk bet on a new product for those who aren’t sure of their feelings about a fish fillet.
“Some guests are hesitant to try something new, they have their classic go-to order and don’t deviate from their routine,” said Bruno Cardinali, chief marketing officer of Americas of Popeyes. “We came up with sandwich insurance to give those guests the encouragement they may need.”
Restaurant Brands International Inc., Popeyes parent company, reported fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday with revenue of $1.36 billion, an 8.2% drop year over year. Popeyes reported a 5.8% decline in same-store sales. This follows a super-strong fourth quarter in 2019 when the company brought back the famed chicken sandwich. But now rivals are quickly joining the fray.
Still, CEO Jose Cil said the chain is seeing record profitability in the U.S., and that average Popeyes sales are $1.8 million a year, a staggering 29% jump from just $1.4 million pre-sandwich. “A large part of this growth is attributable to the chicken sandwich, but we continue to see significant growth across every category of our menu,” he said.
It’s hard to overstate the poultry propelled growth. The summer of 2019 launch of the chicken sandwich set off a social-media frenzy and created fast-food mania in person, too. A projected three-month supply sold out in two weeks with re-sellers on EBay listing cold sandwiches for $7,000. Drive-thru lines and backups clogged roadways. Suppliers ran short of the specific chicken needed to make it. A person was stabbed to death.
Hype and heartbreak aside, Cil has called the $3.99 sandwich a “game changer in every way” with the chain still riding its fried-chicken wave of success.
Popeyes is now the third-biggest quick-serve chicken chain in the U.S. measured by market share, according to data from Euromonitor. In 2019, the chain picked up a small amount of share from the year prior to make up 12.4% of the total. Chick-fil-A Inc was in the top place in 2019 with more than 42% of the market, followed by KFC with 15.6%.
As McDonald’s plans to add new chicken sandwiches to its menu, Popeyes is parrying with its own take on their famous Filet-O-Fish.
“It’s an incredible sandwich. We tested it for awhile,” Cil said of the new seafood offering. It started development alongside the chicken sandwich back in late 2016. “The intent is not to replace the chicken sandwich, but it’s to give people an alternative through the Lent season.”
Popeyes’ fish sandwich debut comes just before the start of the Catholic holiday Ash Wednesday, this year Feb. 17, when many people give up eating meat until Easter. “We often launch seafood entrees like our Cajun shrimp around Lent and see great results, so February felt like a great time to bring our Cajun flounder sandwich to the masses,” said Sami Siddiqui, president, Americas of Popeyes, in an email.
Credit Suisse Securities analyst Lauren Silberman affirms the industry trend: “In general, operators have said that during Lent is when [fish] gets more popular, but otherwise it’s not really the protein that consumers are going after. This is nothing compared to what the chicken sandwich is.” adds Silberman, referencing the cult following and success Chick-fil-A has had with its fried poultry.
In other words, she adds, “This didn’t make me really excited by any means for Popeyes.”
So, how’s it taste?
Three testers, two in New York and one in Chicago, got a preview of the Cajun flounder sandwich and agree: it’s not posing any immediate threats to that chicken hype.
The not-too-thick, innocuous fish is coated with the company’s orange-hued Cajun seasoning mix, then fried in a batter that’s not as crispy nor compelling as the one on the chicken. (“It’s a different batter. We designed it specifically for fish to help it stay crispy, even with a super moist piece of flounder,” says Amy Alarcon, head of culinary innovation at Popeyes.)
Most importantly, the ratio of crunchy crust to fish doesn’t come close to the hefty shell on the chicken. Two wished for more of the surprisingly good dill-pickle studded tartar sauce smeared on the buttery bun. More than two pickle slices or even a crunchy piece of lettuce would also add some much needed texture.
Shockingly, the calorie difference is almost negligible if you’re seeking a healthier menu option: the fish sandwich has 670 calories compared to 690 calories for the much richer tasting chicken. It also has significantly more calories than the O.G. of fast-food fish sandwiches, McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish, since it as about twice as big. Introduced in 1965, the smaller pollock filet topped with American cheese and tartar sauce has just 380 calories.
But for one reviewer, none of that mattered: “I’d call it a delicious spicy version of the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish. Adding pickles is inspired—or maybe they just copied my order from two weeks ago on the McD’s app.”
If you’re not an avowed fish sandwich aficionado like her though, our advice: Invest 15 cents in the sandwich insurance
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.