'I was working like a slave': Exhausted Popeyes employees describe a harrowing situation in the midst of chicken sandwich chaos, including working 60-hour weeks and shifts with no breaks

Irene Jiang / Business Insider

When Popeyes launched its chicken sandwich in early August, nobody expected it to go this far.






  • Popeyes and Chick-fil-A engaged in a Twitter battle last week over which chain's chicken sandwich was superior, following the rollout of Popeyes' new chicken sandwich.
  • The social media feud went viral, fueling unprecedented orders at Popeyes locations and a shortage of the menu item at many locations nationwide.
  • Many employees at Popeyes are working extra hours - some over 60 a week - to handle the demand. One employee said he was "working like a slave in the back" to fill sandwich orders during an 11-hour shift on Saturday.
  • Five Popeyes employees who spoke with Business Insider described long hours, massive crowds, and threats from hungry, angry customers.
  • "Popeyes restaurants experienced unprecedented volumes over the last couple of weeks. All restaurant employees have worked very hard. We are very grateful for all that they do for Popeyes guests," a Popeyes representative said in a statement to Business Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
When Popeyes launched its chicken sandwich in early August, nobody expected it to go this far.

Following the rollout of the new menu item, Popeyes and Chick-fil-A engaged in a battle via Twitter over which chain had the better sandwich. Even Wendy's got in on the action, but stalwart defenders of Popeyes rose to defend the sandwich that was crowned number one by Business Insider's fast-food critic, Irene Jiang, in a chicken sandwich head-to-head.

The Twitter feud and ensuing hype prompted a massive uptick in chicken sandwich orders at Popeyes, causing a shortage of the item at many locations.

Read more: Popeyes is selling out of chicken sandwiches as the frenzy over the new menu item reaches a fever pitch

For Popeyes and Chick-fil-A, the chicken sandwich war still rages on. And at the frontlines of the battle are the employees - managers, sandwich makers, shift leaders, and cashiers - some of whom are working more than 60-hour weeks and many days without breaks in order to quell the public's craving for chicken sandwiches.

Business Insider spoke with five Popeyes employees across the US about working at the chain during the so-called "chicken wars." Workers say that they are overwhelmed and exhausted, and many are considering quitting their jobs.

"I was working like a slave in the back prepping the buns with pickles and the spicy mayo," said Carlos an 18-year-old Popeyes crew member in Orange County, California.

This employee and other Popeyes' workers have been granted anonymity in order to allow them to speak frankly about working conditions and the situation more generally at Popeyes. Employees told Business Insider that when the chicken sandwich was rolled out, the response was almost immediate and overwhelming.

"Popeyes restaurants experienced unprecedented volumes over the last couple of weeks. All restaurant employees have worked very hard. We are very grateful for all that they do for Popeyes guests," a Popeyes representative said in a statement to Business Insider.

'Everyone wanted to quit'

Reuters

A sign posted inside Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen in the Queens borough of New York.




A Popeyes employeea nd other employees told Business Insider that when the chicken sandwich was rolled out, the response was almost immediate and overwhelming.

"Everyone wanted to quit so bad because it was that bad," he said. "We have never seen it get this insanely busy."

A Popeyes employee said his location sold out of the chicken sandwich at around 6 p.m. the first day. The next day, it was sold out by mid-day.


A Popeyes employee added: "My experience at Popeyes has been fine till this sandwich has come."

One now-former Popeyes employee who worked at a Newark, New Jersey, location told Business Insider that she actually did quit last Wednesday "in the middle of making two sandwiches." Crowds had been building at her location as the viral debate over who had the superior chicken sandwich raged.

"The issue with Popeyes or any fast food is the treatment and the amount of pay that a worker gets," the now-former employee said.

"The added demand increased the amount of work tenfold, while I still get paid next to nothing," she added.

A part-time employee in a West Coast Popeyes said she and her coworkers usually don't take breaks until a minimum of four to five hours into their shifts.

"My coworkers said that there's been nights that they go home at 2 am when closing is at 11," the employee added. A high school senior, the employee said that her shifts have generally been bearable, though she has considered quitting if the store remains as busy at it has recently been.



Popeyes workers say the situation is getting dangerous in some locations

Irene Jiang / Business Insider

Popeyes chicken sandwich.




In some cases, the work environment at Popeyes has become dangerous.

"I had customers nearly fight some of my coworkers because they were told that we were not serving the sandwich because we had ran out," a manager at an East Coast Popeyes said.

She said that the lines at her location were like nothing she had ever experienced at work.

"You would think at the Popeyes I work in that there was a concert going on," she added.

"I had an instance where a customer was threatening to assault me when I was taking out trash," another employee said. "A customer sees me and shouts, 'Do we have a problem or what! Why no sandwiches! You guys are third Popeyes to say so! You better stop looking at me or else!' I was looking at the line."

The employee added that it is not uncommon for workers to go entire shifts without taking a break, saying that one coworker worked 65 hours over six days. This employee said their restaurant has shifted to mostly focusing on completing orders, neglecting certain tasks like sweeping and washing dishes for the time being. According to the Popeyes employee, many workers are looking for new jobs.

"It's pretty stressful," the employee said.



Popeyes' CEO says it has been a 'tough week' for workers

Irene Jiang / Business Insider

Popeyes chicken sandwich.




For many employees, the sudden overwhelming response to the new menu item was strange, considering the chicken sandwich had already been served in many locations for about a year.

In fact, when Business Insider went to taste test chicken sandwiches early in August, before the new sandwich had been officially announced, a Manhattan location was already serving it.

Now, getting a chicken sandwich is much more difficult. Reports of chicken sandwich shortages continued on Tuesday, sparking concerns that it might be a more long-term problem.

When Business Insider spoke with Jose Cil, the CEO of Popeyes' parent company Restaurant Brands International, last Friday, he acknowledged that it had been a "tough week" for many workers in stores.

"They've worked really hard, and actually the success that we've seen with the launch of the chicken sandwich is really a success that's been driven by our franchise partners as well as our team members and the restaurants," he said.

If you're a fast-food employee with a story to share, email retail@businessinsider.com.



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