We’ll never let go: our obsession with the last Popeyes buffet

A customer at the Popeye's buffet line
Photo by LeeAnn B. Stephan

A young guy in a Superman T-shirt soars out of Popeyes on the corner of Pinhook and South College roads, flanked by his friends in Ragin’ Cajuns garb — pretty much the crowd you’d expect to see at a fast-food chicken joint at supper time.

One of the last people you’d expect to see? World-traveling chef and TV star Anthony Bourdain.

Which is perhaps why the flurry of local headlines trumpeting his recent binge at one of Lafayette’s greasiest crown jewels has blanketed news feeds for the last few weeks. Thanks to a recent People article, we know Bourdain ate at least three meals at Popeyes while visiting Lafayette to shoot an upcoming Cajun Country episode of his CNN show Parts Unknown airing June 17.

A call to the Pinhook Popeyes confirmed the recent Bourdain boost has increased business at the franchise, with buffet pilgrims trekking in from as far as Mississippi, Texas and Arkansas.

But on a recent weekday evening at this particular Popeyes, everything seemed pretty much as I remembered it from college — the last time I’d worshiped at its all-you-can-eat altar. Beneath the scarlet, “Buffet Starts Here” sign, the mac and cheese bubbled, the fried liver basket overflowed, and the spicy dark meat looked in need of a refill. Zydeco piped through the speakers while everyone from toddlers to grandparents licked their fingers and clamored for more napkins. There were no lines, no celebrity signed photos, no cheesy framed social media posts from fans. Not that they wouldn’t have plenty to choose from.

Last year, a tweet by 107.9 proclaiming, “This Popeyes In Lafayette, LA Is Now The Only Remaining Location With A Buffet Option,” went viral. The story was quickly picked up by the food blogosphere, with posts showing up everywhere from Eater (deeming it a “national treasure”) to Southern Living. Buffet fanatics across the internet continue to proclaim their love prolifically and express solidarity with other diehards.

Beyoncé told Oprah she has a lifetime supply card, Khloe Kardashian admitted to fighting off Popeyes pregnancy cravings and Nicki Minaj allegedly wouldn’t perform at New York Fashion Week until she got her fix.

In a recent example on Reddit, one commenter earnestly stated: “They also have a KFC buffet off I-10 a few exits just before Baton Rouge.” To which another replied, “Down vote the heretic!”

And if there was any question as to whether the restaurant’s online fame translated into real-life popularity, Lafayette’s inaugural Krewe De Canailles parade last February showcased a very public display of affection. Krewe members, instructed to honor local legends, boldly marched down Jefferson Street costumed as Popeyes buffet menu items.

I totally get it.

My earliest memory of my Popeyes infatuation goes back to the late ’80s, a decade after Popeyes opened its first franchise location in Louisiana. My cousin and I were riding backwards in my grandparents’ station wagon, weighed down by thick seatbelts, while the fried feasts’ signature aroma wafted to the backseat. As my stomach rumbled, I crossed my fingers wishing they would drive a little faster, not sure how long I could possibly wait to dig into my chicken leg kids’ meal.

The smell of Popeyes still conjures up birthday parties, baptisms and every celebration in between. Served on a nice platter with a white table cloth, a box of Popeyes meant celebration — sporks included.

As a college student in Lafayette, I was already well versed in the art of Popeyes’ buffet — we had one in my hometown of New Iberia. But when I moved away from Louisiana, Popeyes turned into a sort of olfactory connection to home. As a penny-pinching grad student, the only redeeming quality of my cheap Delta flight layovers in Memphis was the Popeyes in Terminal A. Later, as luck would have it, my desk at The Washington Post was conveniently only a short walk to the Popeyes 14th Street NW outpost. When I was feeling stressed or homesick, I snuck away for a few bites of heaven with a side of biscuits.

Liz Williams is president of the National Food & Beverage Foundation, founder of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum and author of New Orleans: A Food Biography, where she dedicated an entire chapter to Popeyes. She tells me Popeyes’ influence over our food culture is profound and twofold. One: It gave people in South Louisiana a sense of pride and an opportunity to, “be part of the America fast food culture and still be eating our own food.”

Child eating Popeye's
Photo by LeeAnn B. Stephan

“It wasn’t some generic hamburger or some bizzare twist on hispanic food,” says Williams. “This was real Louisiana food.”

Second, it helped bring an authentic taste of Louisiana to the masses across the country and abroad. She credits restaurant founder Al Copeland with having “the greatest impact on spreading the flavor profiles of Louisiana than anybody else.”

“He was Louisiana’s food ambassador,” says Williams. “If you were in Seattle or Minneapolis or Baltimore, you didn’t just see a recipe for this type of food, you didn’t have to come to New Orleans to taste it or to Lafayette, you got to taste it in your home.”

Although the Copeland family no longer owns Popeyes and as of 2014 surrendered its meticulously tested recipes, the brand’s mainstream popularity is still alive and well. Bourdain is not the only celebrity with an affinity for the stuff. Beyoncé told Oprah she has a lifetime supply card, Khloe Kardashian admitted to fighting off Popeyes pregnancy cravings and Nicki Minaj allegedly wouldn’t perform at New York Fashion Week until she got her fix.

According to Popeye’s website, there are currently more than 2,600 restaurants in the U. S. and around the world. The buffet though? The Popeyes on Pinhook remains the only U.S. location.

Its rarity begs the question: Is our buffet in danger of going the way of so many before it? I reached out to Mike Shelton, of Alexandria-based Shelton Restaurant Group, which in 2012 received $30 million from GE Capital to finance the purchase of 29 Popeyes units in the Lafayette area, according to Business Wire. Shelton Restaurant Group purchased the locations from the Moody family’s TMC Foods.

“I have no plans on closing at this time,” says Shelton via email, when asked about the Pinhook buffet.

“Popeyes is in the fabric of the lives of people who grew up in Louisiana,” he adds. “Our job as a company and as citizens of our state is to preserve our culture that makes us so different and appealing.”

That sound you hear is everyone in Lafayette breathing a collective sigh of relief. OK, maybe not everyone, but I know I am.