WHAT WE ORDERED
Bulletin Managing Editor James Burns was invited to Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen soft opening on Thursday. Here’s what he sampled and some of his thoughts:
• Three-piece chicken tender combo, including a side of Cajun rice, biscuit and a beverage. Thoughts: Tenders were thin and flaky. … From a large selection of dips and sauces, I chose the Bayou Buffalo and Blackened Ranch. … The Cajun rice was a soft, flavorable alternative to traditional sides like fries and mashed potatoes. … The biscuit was a biscuit. … I can see long lines gathering at the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine.
• Spicy chicken breast. Thoughts: The right amount of crunch and spice; chicken was moist and came off the bone with ease.
From the front window of his home, Donald Foster watched Popeyes rise slowly from a dirt lot in the Marketplace shopping center.
On Thursday, he finally got to see the fast food restaurant from the inside.
And his visit came with one savory footnote: Foster and his daughter Ashley Coulter were the first customers in store history.
Unofficially, that is.
Popeyes celebrated its soft opening at its 1401 West Yosemite Avenue location on Thursday evening, inviting the friends and family members of employees to sample the service and a limited menu.
The grand opening is today, beginning at 10 a.m.
“I’m glad it’s here. I live right across the street and KFC is so far away,” said Foster, whose wife Laura Rice was one of 35 new employees buzzing about behind the counter.
“I’m a big boy,” he added, tapping his stomach, “I like to eat fried chicken.”
He didn’t disappoint.
Foster ordered a two-piece chicken plate with a side of mashed potatoes – each spiced with Cajun seasoning – while Coulter, 9, munched on chicken tenders.
Sitting in a corner booth, sipping from a Coca-Cola concoction and an empty tray before them, both father and daughter shared the same sentiment: Popeyes was worth the wait.
“I think KFC has some big problems,” Foster said.
Yes, it appears Colonel Sanders has got some competition.
Popeyes ranks among the fastest-growing fast food chains in the country with more than 2,000 locations around the world.
Today’s grand opening continues a strong push by Popeyes into Northern California.
District Manager Jerome Patterson said he opened eight locations in his first year with the company, and says Popeyes has scouted three future locations within 40 miles of Manteca.
The soft opening served as a dress rehearsal for manager Roshine Sharma and her mostly baby-faced staff, many of them dressed in Popeyes trademark burgundy shirts.
Patterson and fellow District Manager Balwinder Singh shadowed a group of eight on the front counter computers, pointing out procedure and items on the touchscreen.
The back kitchen hummed with energy. An assistant manager called for a half basket of fries, while on the opposite side another employee battered and fried pieces of chicken that had been marinating overnight.
Roman Gil stood near the front door, checking in guests, answering questions and handing out menus. This is Gil’s first job and he expressed nervous excitement on the eve of a highly anticipated grand opening.
Gil expects to be in the drive thru today – the only function not available for testing on Thursday.
“It’s going to be crazy,” he said. “There is going to be a lot of people here.”
Patterson said Popeyes – renowned for its Louisiana-style chicken – will shower its guests with a fitting gift during today’s grand opening: Mardi Gras beads.
The restaurant adds to the eclectic dining options in the Marketplace shopping center, joining Cafe Aroma, Carl’s Jr., New China, Country Skillet, Jack’s Pizza and Subway.
It sits about 2.5 miles to the west of KFC, considered its chief competitor in the chicken business. Patterson said the two might be cooped together in market studies and minds, but there is no comparing menus.
“The Louisiana spice in our chicken is great. We’re a lot different than KFC. People associate us with KFC, but our chicken has a real flavor to it,” Patterson said. “We marinate every piece of chicken for 12 hours before it’s served. We hand bread it and hand fry it. We get fresh chicken; it’s never frozen.”
Popeyes also offers a unique set of sides, including: red beans and rice; Cajun rice; as well as Louisiana-style macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes.
The lobby also features a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine, where customers can select from 100 different beverage options.
“The food is addictive,” Patterson said. “I hear it already from our guests that it’s good.”
Patterson dismissed concerns about Popeyes staying power, despite recent closures around its lot. Tommy’s Beach Bar and Grill and RoosterJuice have shuttered their doors, while the Marketplace theatre has been replaced by Big Lots.
Popeyes confidence is boosted by traffic studies and a lack of direct concept competition, Patterson said. Plus, it built the building. That kind of investment, he added, represents a show of commitment on the restaurant’s part.
“We’re not concerned. This will be a busy location. We’re here to stay,” he said. “I can tell by the traffic and studies we’ve done. A good indication is the amount of excitement in the community, which we’ve had plenty of.
Patterson paused, studying a dining room filled with chatty customers, each going coo-coo over the chicken.
“We’re going to make some chicken tomorrow,” he said.