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The Chicken Sandwich Craze Was Brutal for Fast-Food Employees

Sarah Hutcherson headshotWords by Sarah Hutcherson
Leadership & Transparency
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The infamous Popeyes chicken sandwich sparked a “frenzy the likes of which we haven’t seen,” at least according to the foodie blog Eater. Long lines, memes and celebrity testimonials (one even by Cardi B) all added to the buzz. 

However, two weeks after its debut, Popeyes ran out of the $3.99 chicken sandwich.

“Y’all. We love that you love The Sandwich. Unfortunately we’re sold out (for now),” Popeyes tweeted on August 27.

The news led to headline-grabbers including a man suing Popeyes for the missing sandwich and a man pulling a gun on a Houston employee, which brings into question the responsibilities of a company associated with creating such a firestorm.

The $65 million earned media exposure win elevated the fast-food chain’s brand, but at a cost. 

While the marketing ROI of doubling Popeyes’ Twitter followers is exciting for a brand with a smaller market share than its rival, Chick-fil-A, the marketing goal of going viral does not take into account the toll on operational efficiency and employee well-being.

A dismal working experience is the norm in fast food

The boom in consumer demand led many Popeyes’ employees to work 60-hour weeks and to face an ever rising tide of angry customers as chicken sandwiches sold out earlier each day—not that it was reflected in the company’s public statements.

“Popeyes restaurants experienced unprecedented volumes over the last couple of weeks,” a company spokesperson told Business Insider. “All restaurant employees have worked very hard. We are grateful for all that they do for Popeyes guests.”

However, one Popeyes employee, Wanda Lavender, wants a monetary gesture from Popeyes. “The corporation made all this money—millions—off of these sandwiches, she shared with Vox. “But where’s our cut?”

Low employee satisfaction and high turnover is not new for the fast-food industry. The lack of workers’ autonomy, the physical demands of being on one’s feet every day, and unpredictable schedules all contribute to the high turnover rate, as detailed in Harvard Business Review.

In 2015-2017, the Labor Bureau of Statistics concluded that the turnover rate for the restaurant sector was 81 percent. Unfortunately, those within the industry estimate the turnover rate has surged to as much as 100 percent to 200 percent a year.

Fast-food companies continue to churn through employees

“Because turnover is getting so serious and because chains have the ability to do the HR analytics, they can begin to cost out turnover and say, ‘This is not a cost we have taken seriously, because historically we were counting on high turnover model as acceptable,’” explained Rosemary Batt, chair of HR studies and international and comparative labor at the Cornell School of Industrial Labor Relations, to Business Insider.

Both McDonald’s and In-N-Out say they are taking steps to curb high turnover. McDonald’s USA recently announced the launch of training around safe and respectful workplaces to empower employees to work through unconscious bias and bullying. In-N-Out, meanwhile, is a leader in the fast-food space for employee engagement. It never refers to frontline workers as employees but rather as associates, offers a starting wage of $12 per hour, and provides various levels of benefits to full-time and part-time employees, according to its website.

“I think overall, to retain employees is to not have a transaction of ‘I pay you, you work for me’ but a transaction of shared values and respect,” a respondent to an employee engagement survey conducted by 7shifts, a software company for restaurants, explained.

What’s next for Popeyes after that chicken sandwich craze? 

It’s time for Popeyes to learn from the examples set by some of its competitors.

While a summary on Glassdoor found some positive reviews, there were also plenty of comments about low pay that came with the high stress of working at Popeyes. And less than half of reviewers said they would recommend working there to a friend.

By bringing humility to its conversation with employees, Popeyes should communicate, with authenticity, that it valued the stores’ employees who worked late, made thousands of chicken sandwiches and dealt with disrespectful customers over the past month, so they feel as if they are more than a number on the profit and loss statement. 

Image credit: Popeyes

Sarah Hutcherson headshotSarah Hutcherson

As a recent Bard MBA Sustainability graduate, Sarah is excited to be a contributing writer to TriplePundit to demonstrate how environmentally and socially responsible business is synonymous with stronger returns and a more sustainable world. She is most intrigued with how to foster regenerative food systems, develop inclusive and democratic workplaces and inspire responsible consumption.

Read more stories by Sarah Hutcherson

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