LONDON — There were biscuits, just not the kind British people know.
“It looks like a scone,” Victoria Ubochi said after trying a biscuit, “but it doesn’t taste like one.”
One of the challenges for any company expanding internationally is translating the cultural elements of its brand to a new market. For Popeyes, the American fried chicken chain that opened its first outlet in Britain over the weekend, the challenge was biscuits, which in British English means cookies, not flaky, tender bread.
On Saturday, hundreds of customers waited in line for hours in a food court at the Westfield Stratford City shopping mall in East London for their first taste of Popeyes. Some said they had heard about the frenzy it stirred in the United States in 2019. Others had heard about the brand through references in rap music. (“Then I get there and all the Popeyes is finished, girl,” one Kanye West song goes.) Some Americans living in London said they were eager for a taste of home.
Tom Crowley, the chief executive of Popeyes U.K., said that it was clear from focus groups that the typical British customer was confused about the concept of a buttermilk biscuit. Further complicating matters was that biscuits looked like scones, which are typically served with hot tea, not eaten with fried chicken.
Focus group participants, he recalled, would say: “‘Why are you giving me a scone with chicken? I have no idea what you are doing.’”
“I guess if we ran with the research,” he added, “we probably wouldn’t have done it, if I’m honest.”
The team ultimately decided to put biscuits on the menu to keep the brand true to its Louisiana roots. “All that heritage plays well,” Mr. Crowley said. “The U.K., in our view, actually appreciates that great fried chicken is going to come out of Southern U.S.”
Raymond Braselman, who is from New Orleans, near where the chain was founded in 1972, and who has lived in Britain for 18 months, said he had not been able to find fried chicken that compared to what he grew up eating. “It’s definitely a bit of home right here in the U.K.,” he said on Saturday as he neared the front of the line. “So I’ve been waiting for it for about two months now.”
Popeyes, one of the largest fried chicken chains in the United States, was founded in Louisiana by Al Copeland, who was born into a poor family in New Orleans. His first attempt at a fried chicken restaurant, inspired by the opening of a KFC in New Orleans, was a failure. He tweaked his chicken recipe, adding cayenne pepper and Cajun-inspired spices, and changed the name to Popeyes. (He said he could not afford an apostrophe.) It was a hit.
By the end of the 1980s, he owned or had franchised more than 800 locations. Today there are more than 3,400 Popeyes locations worldwide, in countries including Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, China, Jamaica and Brazil.
Popeyes, which is owned by Restaurant Brands International, is betting that it can cut through the competition in Britain, which is no stranger to fried chicken and has American brands like KFC. There are plans to open 10 to 15 additional Popeyes locations in Britain next year, Mr. Crowley said.
Several Americans said the food at the London location was just as good as they remembered. But there are some differences from the U.S. franchises. The chicken is halal to cater to the area’s Muslim population. Almost all of the ingredients are sourced from Britain, including baby gem lettuce, which is harder to find in the United States. The menu also includes the chain’s first-ever vegan burger, which is made of fried red beans, a nod to the strong demand for plant-based food in the British market.
Other American fast food companies are expanding in Britain. A Wendy’s opened last week in Croydon, outside London, the fourth Wendy’s location to open in Britain since June. McDonald’s is also planning to open new locations. Two years ago, Chick-fil-A opened its first British restaurant, but announced that it would close after just six months after activists demonstrated against the company’s opposition to same-sex marriage. (Chick-fil-A said at the time that it had planned to stay for a limited time anyway.)
Dante Ellington-Grant got up at 7 a.m. on Saturday and traveled more than an hour from his home in London to line up at the new Popeyes on its opening day.
“It was a breath of fresh air,” he said of his meal, describing the juiciness and crispiness of the chicken. He also liked the biscuit, which he thought was better than a scone.
“I don’t eat scones,” he said.