If you’re looking to understand the contradictions of contemporary capitalism, there’s no better place to start than the new Popeyes chicken sandwich.
The source of backed-up drive-thru lines, fawning media profiles, and ecstatic dining experiences the country over, the sandwich’s release has become the premier fast food event of our time. Vice says that Popeyes’ new chef-d’oeuvre “ascends into a new level of gastronomic achievement that is both a culinary and scientific feat.” The Los Angeles Times claims the fast food delicacy now serves as an “economic indicator” of the country’s fiscal health. The New Yorker suggests the sandwich could “save America.”
Why so much flattery for a simple $3.99 fried chicken sandwich? Well, first off, the taste and texture create an experience that is indeed transcendent. (I take mine spicy.) But perhaps more importantly, the sandwich is a uniquely American culinary creation that brings us together at a time of polarization; a succulent rara avis for the twenty-first century.
Yet in the face of all this excitement stands a brutal reality: the profiteers of the Popeyes chicken sandwich craze are the bosses, while the workers bear the brunt. With orders exploding at locations nationwide, Popeyes’ employees are working harder under more grueling conditions and few benefits while corporate shareholders bask Scrooge McDuck–style in their riches.
Such is the status quo under our market-driven industrial food system. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Everybody who wants one should be able to enjoy the new Popeyes chicken sandwich — and working people should be its beneficiaries, not its burdened.
Every day, fifty million Americans eat fast food — nearly one in seven people — a rate that hasn’t changed in fifteen years. That level of consumption generates a stunning $110 billion in revenue annually. In 2018, Restaurants Brands International Inc., which owns Popeyes along with Burger King and a number of other chains, reported $5.35 billion in revenue. Right now these massive earnings benefit a small group of investors, shareholders, and business owners. Cooks at Popeyes, on the other hand, earn an average of $8.32 an hour. Prep cooks make even less: $8.11. Since the new sandwich was introduced on August 12, restaurants across the country have been inundated, with long snaking lines, shortages of the sandwich, and a deluge of hungry, frustrated customers.
On the front lines of this fried chicken chaos stand the very workers being paid starvation wages. Without allowing tips or any mechanism to pass down the financial gains from this surge in business, the launch of the chicken sandwich has become a curse rather than a gift for Popeyes’ workers.
One immediate way to curb this racket would be to increase the minimum wage to $20 an hour. With a full 20 percent of frontline fast food workers living below the poverty line, and many relying on food stamps and other benefits just to survive, raising the wage floor would deliver desperately needed relief to countless workers. While the company’s CEO Cheryl Bachelder recently defended its low wages on Fox Business by claiming the priority is to “grow top-line sales” and that an increase in employee pay would “raise prices for guests and lower hours for employees,” we know Popeyes won’t simply pass on the profit surge to its workers — the company will simply hoard that new wealth for executives like Bachelder.
But pay hikes alone will not solve the injustices of the fast food industry, which is known for poor conditions and a lack of dignity on the job. To improve standards, fast food workers should be able to unionize without intimidation or threats from their bosses and collectively bargain on issues ranging from hours to paid leave.
Higher wages and unionization should also be paired with national programs that provide more freedom for workers who now spend much of their lives serving up hot chicken and fries. A Medicare for All system would instantly provide comprehensive health care benefits to millions of fast food workers, nearly 90 percent of whom do not currently receive coverage through their employer. The comfort of knowing that a medical emergency would not lead to bankruptcy or other instabilities would dramatically improve workers’ quality of life. A similar impact could be expected by implementing a federal jobs guarantee..
How could such programs be paid for? One place to start would be with the benefactors of the current fast food system: the bosses.
The fast food industry is the most unequal in the country, with employees occupying the position of the lowest-paid American workers, while the CEOs are some of the highest paid. As a 2017 Demos report shows, “In 2012, the compensation of fast food CEOs was more than 1,200 times the earnings of the average fast food worker.” In real terms, that’s meant less than $19,000 per year for workers, and $23.8 million for CEOs. Those earnings should be taxed at sky-high rates, along with the wealth and estates of fast food’s capitalist class.
Of course, we can aim even higher. A democratic-socialist future promises a world where both the labor required and earnings produced by culinary fads like the Popeyes chicken sandwich could be used to make workers’ lives better while seeding the returns into programs that build a more vibrant (and delicious) society.
Far from stamping out ingenuity or thwarting entrepreneurship, a system of worker control and social rights could provide more time and space for ordinary people to develop new recipes and concepts that could lead to the next Popeyes chicken sandwich. Rather than paying for investors’ glitzy villas, the money made through fast food sales could be reinvested into publicly provided education and cooking classes. And with higher wages, the products themselves could be more universally enjoyed by the working class.
A more equitable and democratic food system would also have to transform the modern factory-farming and meat industries, known for their cruelty to workers and animals alike, as well as for wreaking havoc on the climate. Up to 57 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions stem from the global food system, and the International Panel on Climate Change has warned that industrialized countries must reduce greenhouse emissions by up to 40 percent below 1990 levels to avoid climate devastation.
The Green New Deal resolution put forward by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey sets out to achieve this goal, promising to move the United States away from fossil fuels by 2030 and reach net-zero greenhouse emissions, in part by taking on Big Agriculture and building more sustainable food systems. This is the type of carbon-neutral vision that will be necessary to avoid calamity while still enjoying occasional indulgent meals. If we can put the industry under public control, the lab-grown meat industry could help us towards this goal, too.
Vegetarian options like Burger King’s new plant-based Impossible Whopper should also be invested in. If Burger King can produce a product nearly indistinguishable from real meat, why can’t Popeyes?
So, the critics are right: we should celebrate the arrival of Popeyes chicken sandwich, a new addition to the canon of American fast food indulgences. But the rage for the sandwich should also be directed at the bosses, who do everything in their power to make sure working people are denied the wealth and benefits from their sandwich labors, all in order to swell their riches.
This sandwich may have been created under capitalism — but under socialism, who knows where the frontiers of snack creation may lie?