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The Backlash to the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich Is Here

The sandwich is too delicious and popular for its own good, and the obsession with it is now being painted as unethical, elitist and even racist.

by Jelisa Castrodale
27 August 2019, 4:19pm

Photo: Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

This autumn marks two decades since the release of Fight Club, director David Fincher’s dark celebration of toxic masculinity that also attacked consumerism and the pursuit of the so-called status quo. One of the most visceral scenes in a movie made entirely of visceral scenes was when a bare-chested, bare-knuckled Jack (Edward Norton) pins the platinum-haired and perfectly symmetrical Angel Face (Jared Leto) to the concrete floor and beats the absolute shit out of him. “I felt like destroying something beautiful,” Jack says after the underground fight.

The Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich was released just over two weeks ago, but after two weeks of being nothing short of obsessed with it, both online and in real life, we’ve reached the “I felt like destroying something beautiful” stage of appraising this breaded and spiced masterpiece. The inevitable backlash to the sandwich—or, more accurately, to the unyielding frenzy that the sandwich has created—is finally here. I am Jack’s grease-stained social conscience.

Last week, an employee at a Popeyes in Gainesville, Florida had to be hospitalized after falling during her shift. The Miami Herald called her “the first victim” of the “chicken sandwich wars,” after quoting a tweet alleging that she slipped on a floor that was slick with grease from hours of nonstop sandwich orders. A couple of days later, a photo of an overworked, exhausted Popeyes employee sitting outside a restaurant went viral, and eventually got the full meme treatment. Meme-ing a service industry worker whose wages will not increase despite the extra chaos at her workplace is whatever the opposite of dank is, but at least the most self-aware among us were quick to realize that. “I'm uncomfortable with that picture of the deflated, exhausted Popeye's worker being used as a meme,” one person responded, a tweet that was liked 56,000 times.

A Medium post quickly followed, one that wondered whether the sandwich was “ethical,” following the ICE raids on seven chicken plants in central Mississippi, and the arrests and detention of some 680 workers. The author suggests that Popeyes sources its meat from processors like the ones that were targeted during the raids, the same kind of facilities that also rely heavily on an immigrant, largely Latinx workforce.

“The connection between immigrant labor and that piece of fried chicken is undeniable. The work of thousands of underpaid, mainly Latinx, men and women went into producing a product that can be sold cheaply and marketed to millions as the hot sandwich of the moment,” Matthew Lardie wrote. “Can you decry the current climate of targeted racism against Latinx migrants in America in one breath and take a giant bite of a sandwich they helped produce in the next?”

San Francisco Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho raised those same concerns, and she said we should spare a thought for the chickens, too. “And consider, for a moment, the life of the factory-farmed chicken that will eventually become a well-seasoned, fried mass at a place like Popeyes. The reality is likely worse than whatever you’ve imagined,” she wrote. (On the one hand, Popeyes has a lengthy-but-vague Animal Welfare Statement on its website; on the other, it also sold its fried combos in boxes labeled ‘Emotional Support Chicken’—boxes shaped like actual chickens—for a brief time at its Philadelphia Airport location.)

And even the most well-meaning efforts surrounding the Popeyes Chicken Situation feel completely precarious right now. Over the weekend, 17-year-old high school student David Ledbetter went to his local Popeyes and started registering people to vote while they stood in line, inching slowly toward the counter. “I once attended a caucus meeting in Charlotte and I noticed the lack of young people present,” he told Because of Them We Can. “I wanted to start an initiative to allow more youth to become politically involved, so I thought registering people to vote and handing out information on voting would be the best way to engage.” (He registered 16 people that day.)

Singer Janelle Monae made the same suggestion. ““Perhaps we put voting booths at every Popeyes location,” she wrote in a now-deleted tweet. “While we wait on that sammich you can register and vote @popeyes holla.” The backlash was swift (even John Legend weighed in) and she was roundly dragged for being elitist, and for shaming POC. Monae quickly posted a four-tweet apology thread.

“I think the tweets that I posted about registering and voting were insensitive and wrong—specifically they ignored the very real issues of voter suppression that have impacted my community for years and me directly,” she wrote. “Thanks to all of you for calling me out (or in) and helping me remember and refocus on the bigger issues.”

On Saturday, the manager of a Popeyes in Columbia County, Georgia, said that after enduring 45-minute lines, having to bring a cop in to direct drive-thru traffic, and a couple of minor chicken sandwich-related car accidents, he was considering pulling the sandwich off the menu at his restaurant.

No, that’s not the way this works. You have to let us destroy this beautiful thing ourselves.