NEW ORLEANS – Louisiana is known for delivering food with big, bold flavor. The same can be said for the founder of the Popeyes fried chicken empire, who put spicy chicken, red beans and dirty rice on the national map and whose story is outlined in a new book, “Secrets of a Tastemaker: Al Copeland, The Cookbook.”
Copeland's son Al Copeland Jr. said he and authors Chris Rose and Kit Wohl tried to capture the “real life and times of Al Copeland" in the book released last month.
The elder Copeland, who died in 2008, made his mark in business with his restaurants, but was also known for philanthropic endeavors — including “Secret Santa” missions to thousands of children in metro New Orleans and the extravagant Christmas light display at his home. For a time, he even had a successful offshore powerboat racing career.
“Some people thought he was flashy and flamboyant, and he was," his son said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But what they didn’t know was that everything that was his was yours — whether that was a Lamborghini or just welcoming you into his home. He was very much a man who enjoyed seeing people happy.”
Copeland built — and eventually lost — the Popeyes fried chicken empire. His first restaurant opened 50 years ago, in 1972, in the New Orleans suburb of Arabi. The “Love That Chicken" jingle, still used in commercials today, debuted in 1980.
The book recounts Copeland's boldness in cooking, and includes recipes — though not those associated with Popeyes, his son said. Readers can get a glimpse, he said, into the kind of food Al Copeland used in Copeland’s, the casual dining restaurant chain venture he started in 1983.
The book includes dishes served at the Copeland family table, including corn and crab bisque, crawfish bread, ricochet catfish, crawfish eggplant au gratin, and pork tenderloin CP3, named for then-New Orleans Hornets star guard Chris Paul.
“What runs throughout the book ... is the story of the American dream,” Copeland Jr. said. “This book is about a guy who didn’t have much of anything, not much of an education and he was living in a world that wouldn’t give him much of a shot.”
By 1989, there were 700 Popeyes franchises in the United States and abroad, and Copeland leveraged those assets to buy the Church’s Fried Chicken chain. That move gave him control over 2,000 chicken restaurants. But the success was short-lived: A little more than two years later, the merged company had amassed more than $400 million in debt and, in 1991, Copeland filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for Al Copeland Enterprises.
In May 1992, the bankruptcy court awarded Copeland’s creditors total control of his chicken empire under a new name, America’s Favorite Chicken Company. Copeland did retain ownership of the Popeyes recipes and the manufacturing company that made the seasonings, according to the book.
“Although he was not operating Popeyes, the company could not operate — not even exist — without him,” the book reads. “That ruling reinforced Al’s longtime belief that he should always have a back door, an alternative plan for change.”
In 2017, Restaurant Brands International Inc. acquired Popeyes.
Liz Williams, founder of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, said Copeland was known for being bold, in thought and business.
“He has done almost more than any other chef to get the city's most authentic flavors to people everywhere,” she said. “I think of him as an ambassador for New Orleans ... because wherever there's a Popeyes, then you have the chance to get a piece of New Orleans.”
The September book launch helped mark the 50th anniversary of Popeyes. Copeland Jr. said the fried chicken franchise was founded when he was 9 years old so he’s had a “chance to experience the whole ride from the poorer times to the exciting times.”
“This project is bringing back a lifetime of memories and it’s a way for my father’s legacy to live on,” he said.