Long lines for grand opening of Popeyes Shanghai, which ran out of food

Business & Technology

The classic fast-food restaurant joins Costco among the American consumer-facing brands to successfully enter China even amid a global pandemic and brewing geopolitical tensions.

Back in November, a man cut in line at a Popeyes fast food restaurant in Maryland and was fatally stabbed. Popeyes had recently re-released its chicken sandwich after it had literally run out of stock at the end of last summer. Upon the re-release, there were drive-thru lines stretching around blocks. There was no tolerance for cutting.

Around the same time this sandwich arrived on the market, China opened its first Costco store in Shanghai, nearly sparking a riot. Videos went viral of women tearing apart a piece of cheap pork.

Considering these two phenomena, the opening of Popeyes in Shanghai on Friday — on Huaihai Road, one of the most pedestrian-heavy shopping streets in the center of the city — was inevitably going to be a spectacle. This was also Popeyes’s first store in mainland China since it withdrew from the country in 2003, after opening three stores in Beijing and Dalian between 1999 and 2002. Popeyes is owned by Restaurant Brands International, which also controls Burger King and the Canadian coffee chain Tim Hortons.

I showed up at about 6:15 p.m. expecting to see the morbid glory of people stretching down the block, but there wasn’t even a line. I peered through the windows and it was certainly full, but not packed. When I got to the front door there was a small crowd of maybe 20 or 30 disappointed people around the entrance, and that’s when I found out why — the store had run out of food. A dozen or so security guards stood against the entrance barring the disappointed and befuddled group of Chinese folks making inquiries about how it was possible for a fast food restaurant to be sold out.

To answer that question, you have to start earlier. Much earlier.

Mitchell R. Bradford Jr., a southern Arkansas native, and his friend Akeel Alleyne, a Maryland native, arrived at 5 a.m. to make sure they could get in. Much to their delight, they were the first customers.

“We had planned on being there at 8, then changed to 7,” Bradford said. “But then we saw that the article advertising the opening had gotten over 14,000 views! So we figured we should try for 5.”

They wanted to get there early because the first hundred customers would receive free swag. By 8 a.m., there were already hundreds of people in line.

Another person I talked to showed up at 9:30 a.m. but gave up shortly after because the line stretched all the way down the block. By all accounts, there were way more Chinese folks than foreigners. Bradford and Alleyne were the lone foreigners for hours as they waited in line.

For Bradford, this was an experience that brought him closer to home.

“I love the biscuits and tenders back home,” he said. “The flavor is just like part of my life in the south. Made it special here. I had been to the Popeyes in Hong Kong airport a few years ago and almost cried because it was so much like home.”

Bradford and Alleyne were lucky. Checking Weibo, there were a lot of complaints from people who stood in line and didn’t get to order. There were also a fair number of people who trashed the food. They said it either wasn’t good or didn’t live up to expectations — which, fair enough, if you stand in line for hours, the expectations are going to be hard to live up to.

What was missing, however, were posts about the infamous chicken sandwich. The people I spoke to outside the restaurant didn’t mention the viral sensation. Most of them cited Popeyes’s enormous WeChat and Weibo marketing campaign for this particular store opening, and the 30% off coupon that went with it. I asked a few people about being interested in Popeye’s signature flavor, but that didn’t seem to be a factor at all.

“I just wanted to try something new,” one woman said. “There was a lot of news about this opening on WeChat.”

Never underestimate the desire to be the first to try something — in this case, the local customers who were able to order from Popeyes were able to say they were among first in China to ever buy something from this New Orleans fast-food chain. That’s…something.

And to the best of our knowledge, there was no queue-jumping.