This happened at high noon on a Tuesday a couple of weeks ago. I had exactly one hour between the time my morning meeting let out and the 1:00 matinee of “Harriet” at the Highland Cinema. Plenty of time to grab a bite to eat. And I knew just where I wanted to go.
Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen.
Although Popeye’s opened in Cookeville this time last year, I’d never eaten there. In fact, I’d only eaten at a Popeye’s once in my life. That was on a trip to Lookout Mountain a couple of years ago, when my travelling companion spotted one and slammed on the brakes. “Hooray!” he shouted. “Popeye’s is my favorite restaurant of all time!”
I’d gotten wind that the chicken sandwich Popeye’s had introduced back in August was making a comeback. It was so wildly popular nationwide that the chain sold out in just two weeks and was unable to put it back on the menu until this month. “It’s a very specific product, cut from the thickest part of the chicken breast,” Popeye officials explained. “Supply simply couldn’t keep up with demand.”
The sandwich made its triumphant return on November 3. Violence ensued. In Los Angeles, an employee was caught selling chicken sandwiches on the sly out the back door of the restaurant. His co-workers were so outraged they beat him up. Worse than that is a story from Maryland, where a customer desperate for a Popeye’s chicken sandwich cut in line. A fight erupted. One of the combatants was stabbed and later died.
I’d planned to order my sandwich at the drive-thru and eat it on the way to the movie, but when I saw cars lined up two dozen-deep, I decided to park and go in.
Alas, there were no empty parking spots at Popeye’s. Not one. I pulled back onto Jefferson and parked next door at Burger King, which was hauntingly empty despite the fact that Burger King sells a chicken sandwich of its own. The line inside Popeye’s stretched from the counter all the way to the front door. Good thing I still had 45 minutes before “Harriet” started.
I pulled out my phone to google the chicken sandwich phenomenon. That’s how I learned about the stabbing death. I read the story aloud, just in case any other customers might be interested. Several were, and we were all exceedingly grateful that two capable-looking sheriff’s deputies stood in line nearby.
The good news is that nothing bad happened in the half-hour I waited to order my lunch except that one customer spilled her jumbo-sized Coca-Cola all over the floor. The frazzled manager had to interrupt overseeing the kitchen to come mop it up, which gave me the perfect opportunity for a quick interview. “Is it always this busy at lunchtime,” I asked, “or is this all about the chicken sandwich?”
“It’s the sandwich,” she said, pushing a strand of hair out of her eyes. “I’ve had one cook quit already today and another’s threatening to. I hope we sell out in a hurry.” Then she went on with her mopping.
So…was the sandwich worth the wait? I scarfed it down so fast that perhaps I can’t give it a fair review, but I will say that the chicken was crispy, hot, juicy and perfectly spiced. I didn’t find the buttered “artisan-style brioche bun” to be anything special. My biggest disappointment was the pickles. They were purported to be one of the big things that set the Popeye’s chicken sandwich apart—barrel-cured and thick-cut and three slices to a sandwich.
My sandwich had no pickles at all, but I wasn’t about to get back in line to ask for them. I was just hoping to make it to the movie on time.
(November 17, 2019)