Our newspaper neglected to run the wire-service obituary for Al Copeland, the infamous and controversial founder of the Popeye's Famous Chicken and Church's Chicken restaurant chains. One of New Orleans' most prominent and wealthy notables, he died March 24 at a clinic just outside Munich, Germany. Only 64, he had been aggressively seeking new and experimental treatments for his malignant salivary-gland tumor, which he had just been diagnosed with at Thanksgiving.
According to the Associated Press obit, Copeland had spent "10 modestly successful years" in the doughnut business before he followed the lead of his idol and mentor Col. Harland Sanders, who died in 1980 of cancer. After Sanders opened one of his Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in Copeland's hometown of New Orleans in 1966, Copeland decided to launch a competing franchise he called Chicken on the Run, which boasted its own catchy slogan to rival KFC's "Finger-lickin' Good." Copeland's chain heralded speed with its trademark phrase: "So fast, you get your chicken before you get your change."
After just six months, Copeland realized his chicken chain was losing money against Sanders' rapidly growing empire, which he built on branding that "recipe with 11 secret herbs and spices."
In "a last-ditch effort," Copeland reinvented his chain launching a new menu featuring chicken breaded with a spicier Louisiana Cajun-style recipe. He also renamed his chain Popeye's Mighty Good Fried Chicken, named after Popeye Doyle, the character played by Gene Hackman in the 1971 film "The French Connection."
He shortened the name to Popeye's Famous Chicken and in 1989, he bought the Church's Chicken franchise, which was founded in 1952 by Leonard L. Church Sr.
According to his obituary, Copeland is survived by five sons, four daughters, a brother and 13 grandchildren who will continue to run his chicken empire, which, according to a company press release, is "the second-largest quick-service chicken restaurant group with more than 1,800 restaurants in more than 40 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and 20 countries worldwide."
My only encounter with Copeland was a decade ago in February 1997 at Mardi Gras.
Though many associate natives Harry Connick Jr., Kitty Carlisle Hart, Britney Spears and Richard Simmons with the Big Easy, I always thought of Copeland and author Anne Rice as two of the Crescent City's more iconic residents.
However, these latter two always remained at odds with each other and used their equally sizeable wealth to wage their public feuding.
Rice, who now lives in Los Angeles to be closer to her author son Christopher Rice, continues to have a reputation as one of New Orleans' more "colorful" personalities.
During the 1997 Mardi Gras weekend, Rice and Copeland publicly exchanged verbal blows. Copeland had just opened an upper-scale eatery called Straya in February 1997 along St. Charles Avenue in the historic Garden District, which featured neon and Art Deco architecture that Rice deemed in poor taste considering the surrounding area.
In a full-page newspaper advertisement in New Orleans' Times Picayune on the Friday before Fat Tuesday, Rice, who has restored several historic New Orleans properties and considers herself a preservationist, drafted a letter titled "A Special Message."
It read: "I wish you a warm welcome for this carnival season and ask that you let me express my personal humiliation, regret and sorrow, as private citizen Anne Rice, for the absolutely hideous Straya's restaurant which has opened its doors. This monstrosity in no way represents the ambiance, the romance or the charm that we seek to offer you and to strive to maintain in our city. Flop houses have more dignity than Straya."
The four-times-married Copeland, referencing the vampire novels Rice has become so famous for, countered with a four-page civil lawsuit and a two-page newspaper advertisement showing photos of the restaurant his second wife Pattie White and he designed and stating he "planned to add a little extra garlic in the food at Straya, keep a crucifix under his pillow and carry a wooden stake for good luck."
Copeland also snapped he "wouldn't recognize Rice if she were one of the waitresses in his restaurant."
Rice told me the entire exchange is just an example of when New Orleans neighbors have an "over the fence dispute."
And while I was at a Mardi Gras party that year in her beautiful Garden District mansion, she still had the final word.
The entree Rice loves to serve guests at her home during Mardi Gras is fried chicken.
"You don't have to even ask where it came from," Rice said to me with a smile.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 219.852.4327.
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