Fifty years ago, the New Orleans businessman Al Copeland opened a fried chicken stand on the side of the road in Arabi, Louisiana, called “Chicken on the Run.” He didn’t see much traffic, so he took to the kitchen to tinker with spices and rework the dishes, and a few months later, he rebranded with a secret recipe and a new name: Popeyes.
Copeland died in 2008, but his legacy lives on; today, nearly 3,000 Popeyes restaurants across the country serve spicy chicken fingers and buttery biscuits to loyal crowds. Meanwhile, his second franchise, the fittingly named Copeland’s, a casual sit-down chain, spreads the gospel of Cajun and Creole cooking throughout Louisiana, Texas, Florida, and Georgia. Next month, as Popeyes celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, the family honors Copeland’s legacy with Secrets of a Tastemaker, a recipe-filled book inspired by Copeland’s larger-than-life personality.
“My father was so successful as an entrepreneur, and we wanted to take the opportunity to preserve that legacy,” says Al Copeland Jr., Copeland’s son and now CEO of the family company, which—although it sold Popeyes to Restaurant Brands International Inc. in 2017—still maintains deep ties to the beloved fried chicken chain. “We wanted to make this book both a biography and a cookbook because every single aspect of his life was surrounded by food,” Copeland Jr. says.
The connection between entrepreneurship and food started early: Copeland Sr.’s father left when he was young, and his mother suffered from health issues, so the food of his childhood consisted of a lot of Vienna sausages and Spam. He dropped out of high school three days into the tenth grade and tried his hand at various business ventures, including working at a supermarket and launching a donut company.
When he was eighteen, Copeland married Mary Alice LeCompte, who quickly welcomed him into her large Cajun family, introducing him to the foods and flavors of their culture. The Copeland Family Black Pot Fried Chicken and Cajun Duckanoff shared in the cookbook, for instance, sprang from his in-laws and the bounty they brought in from the bayou, field, and garden. “That chicken was on the kitchen stove for supper three times a week when I would go over to my grandparents’ house,” Copeland Jr. says. “It’s a really big memory from my childhood.”
Each recipe in the new book helps tell Copeland’s life story, and plenty of side anecdotes share how Copeland was an avid speedboat racer, an admirer of muscle cars, and known across New Orleans for his lavish annual Christmas display that shone with more than one million lights. The Pecan-Crust Cheesecake—one of Copeland’s favorite desserts and an original menu item at Copeland’s—speaks to his love of extravagance.
His biscuits, which are now nearly synonymous with the fried chicken chain, are the delicious embodiment of Copeland’s innovation and drive. “In the beginning at Popeyes, dad sold the chicken dinners with rolls, because he thought they were the best way to wipe the grease off your lips and fingers. But there was no enjoyment in eating it,” Copeland Jr. says. So, Copeland and his team started making biscuits, testing tray upon tray until they found the right recipe. “We created ‘biscuit colleges,’ and you need a certification to make them in the restaurants,” Copeland Jr. says. But even novices at home can get the technique right by following Copeland’s timeworn recipe.