August 19, 2019, is remembered as pivotal moment in the quick service restaurant industry. That’s when savvy marketers and fast-food fans took to Twitter to pledge their allegiance and pick sides in the brewing Chicken Sandwich War.
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen had invaded the competition’s turf by adding a chicken sandwich to its menu. Consumers fought it out on social media, leaving no middle ground. Battle lines were drawn, and each hilarious Tweet only raised the stakes.
By the time the frenzy died down, Popeyes’ sales had spiked, demonstrating not only customer loyalty but also how alluring its menu is to newcomers. The brand, which launched in 1972, had unintentionally found new hype.
It was all thanks to a crispy fried chicken breast loaded with pickles, dressed with creamy mayo, and served on a buttery brioche bun. There was just one problem: the sandwich represented the true Popeyes brand more than the actual fast-food locations themselves.
Andreina Nisi leads architecture and construction as Popeyes’ design manager for the US and Canada. The architecture and urban design professional who grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, joined the company mere weeks before the Chicken Sandwich Wars began. She’s been working ever since to capitalize on its momentum and seize the unique opportunity to help Popeyes reinvent itself as it continues to expand.
“We had our classic [honey-colored] buildings with green shutters, but we knew it was time to get back to our roots and use bold, creative designs to better represent our Louisiana [roots],” she says. “That’s how we created today’s image.”
Internal marketing, operations, and design teams collaborated with an exterior firm to create refreshed designs for the exterior and dining spaces.
After months of work, the new design known as NOLA Makers came to life. Exterior brickwork, sidewalk tiles, homemade items, handcrafted furniture pieces, natural materials, and other subtle touches pay homage to NOLA, an acronym for New Orleans, Louisiana. While NOLA Makers undergoes a long-term rollout in the Americas, Asia-Pacific will receive a custom redesign called NOLA Eclectic and European stores will be remade with a NOLA Contemporary package.
Popeyes is trying to pull off an important and delicate transformation to honor its storied heritage while adapting to modern customer expectations. Design and technology will help Nisi and the team hit the narrow target.
In 2021, the team launched of six new prototypes. New restaurants will feature double drive-throughs while prepaid ordering, digital pick-up shelves, curbside zones, and self-order kiosks will become available at every location. Franchisees can now choose which prototype will fit best their individual markets.
These features debuted at the Popeyes flagship Canal Street Location in New Orleans, where Nisi and her team took a unique approach by revealing a striking and bold design that first premiered in Shanghai, China.
“We wanted to give a prominent look and show off what we’re doing in other parts of the world,” Nisi says of the Canal Street location. “We decided to do something big and different in our home market in the United States.”
On opening day in March 2022, the live sounds of Big Sam’s Funky Nation greeted customers who came to feast on fried chicken and to check out the design that boasts wraparound exterior terraces, sleek and modern fixtures, and a flashy color combination of orange and teal.
Nisi, who studied at Florida Atlantic University and spent years working as an architecture consultant, came to Popeyes in part for its strong corporate culture. She credits good leadership with creating the right environment to carry these endeavors forth.
“We’re empowered to try and test new ideas,” she says. “That gives us the freedom to be creative, embrace challenges, and find the right solutions together.”
Now that the prototypes are complete, Nisi is focused on helping franchisees and operators understand brand guidelines, retrofit stores, and embrace the changes. The work is all anchored by one thing—the customer experience.
Nisi says the design and construction professionals she works with are examining the results of the latest openings by finding opportunities to improve the prototypes and kitchen efficiencies so Popeyes frontline employees can continue to deliver the best fried chicken in the industry.