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Popeyes Has Big Menu Plans Beyond the Chicken Sandwich

Popeyes President Sami Siddiqui talked with TheStreet about how new items hit the menu, about plant-based trends, robots and international expansion.



Popeyes President Sami Siddiqui talked with TheStreet about how new items hit the menu, about plant-based trends, robots and international expansion.

While fast-food chains like to talk about expansion plans and digital subscriptions, the questions that many of their customers want answered are: "How is that made?" and "What's coming to the menu next?" 

Certain fans meticulously track any changes to their favorite chains' menus. But the process of going from idea to menu item often remains shrouded because competition is sharp and restaurants don't want to give rivals an advantage. 

"We do a bunch of research to understand who our guests are, what they want and even who our guests are not," Sami Siddiqui, president of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, told TheStreet in an exclusive interview. 

Another point of research, the executive says: "The folks who may not come to us as often: What do they want?"

Siddiqui sat down with TheStreet to talk about the Restaurant Brands International  (QSR) - Get Restaurant Brands International Inc Report chain's testing process, digital and automation plans and international reception. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TheStreet: Please walk us through the process of bringing new items to Popeyes. How does something new appear on the menu?

Sami Siddiqui:

It takes a long time. Something like the chicken sandwich took multiple years to go from ideation to actually being in our restaurants. We typically start with an understanding that anything we do needs to accomplish two things: have our unique and unparalleled quality and be authentic to the Popeyes brand.

So we do a bunch of research to understand who our guests are, what they want and even who our guests are not. The folks who may not come to us as often, what do they want? Once we're armed with that research, we have a team of about 10 chefs led by Amy Alarcon, [vice president of culinary innovation], who we call the Mother of the Chicken Sandwich. They're in the kitchen every day and experiment with the best ways to use some of that research.

Once they come up with things, it goes to sensory testing and eventually market testing and operational testing to see what kind of impact it will have on our franchisees and profitability. After that, it eventually goes to market. but that could be anywhere from a one- to three-year process.

Expanding to Plant-Based Protein?


A big trend in the industry is plant-based protein. Have you considered expanding in this direction?

We actually have a red-bean burger in the United Kingdom. I don't know if you've ever had our red beans and rice, but we took it and made it into a burger. 

Going back to that original point of authenticity, what's more authentic than taking a really popular side item and making it into a plant-based? [The bean burger] was built for that particular market, but if you think about the U.S. as a market, we're potentially looking at a lot of products. 

It's still early on and, at least in my view, anything that we choose to do is not going to be a fad. It's going to be something that we would want to do and ideally keep on the menu for the long run.

Is there a litmus test for what fits the Popeyes brand? How do you decide what's on or off brand?

Oh, the research tells us. Whether it's quantitative or qualitative, the research usually tells us when we ask our guests, "Can you see yourself buying this from Popeyes?" or "Do you see yourself craving this from Popeyes?"

The chain previously announced that it is exploring "tech solutions" to the ways its kitchens and restaurants are run. Is automation something you're heading toward?

People often hear automation and think of robots making their food. I've seen some of that happen in the industry, but that's not really the reality of what we're doing. 

Our goal is about incremental innovation to make team-level team members' life easier. With the staffing crunch over the last few years, we've had to take a hard look at what the most difficult parts of the job are and the pain points that our team members have.

Exploring Tech Solutions for efficiency


The solution doesn't have to be as sexy as robots. 

A good example is how historically a team member would manually fish out the chicken after 12 minutes had passed and it was done cooking.

Something as simple as an auto-lift fryer, which has a tray that can lift up the chicken automatically may not be super innovative and, you could argue, could have been done a long time ago. But it is something that we're putting in our restaurants now because our team members want it and said that it would make their life easier and safer for them. 

Simple things like that can go a long way in our system.

Speaking of staffing crunches, how do you recruit and retain staff amid a nationwide labor shortage? The pandemic made many reconsider working in this industry altogether.

We have about 3,000 restaurants in North America and we are 99% franchise. So our team members are actually employed by our franchisees, and over the last couple of years, we've seen the labor crunch. 

People often talk about competitive wages and benefits when it comes to hiring which, of course, are critical to getting folks in the door. But we also have to focus on things like training, rewards and recognition, opportunities for advancement and building a culture of engagement.

We know that if someone is starting in our restaurants, not putting them on the line and actually training them in the first two days [will lead to a] two to three times higher retention rate later. 

Training is a big area that we've invested in to ensure that all of our team members are trained in those first two days or that when a new product is coming out they feel really comfortable [making it] before guests ask them for that product.

A lot of fast-food chains are falling over themselves to get people to order from their apps. Tell us about Popeyes' efforts in this area.

It's been an interesting journey for us. If you compare prepandemic to where we are today, our digital sales were virtually zero prepandemic. People always say that the pandemic accelerated a lot of trends that were already happening. When lockdowns were put in place, delivery really shifted our business. 

Many of our guests realized that you can't eat pizza every night. Pizza has historically been the most commonly delivered item, but after that, fried chicken also ranks pretty high up there. 

We tapped into that insight and made our chicken available through our own app through all the aggregators. That helped us go from 0% digital sales to almost 20% of our sales coming from digital just three years later.

Opening New Stores Globally


Your 2022 plans include opening new stores in China, Spain, Brazil and the United Kingdom as well as launching in France, India and Romania for the first time. Tell us about Popeyes' international presence.

Before this role, I led the Popeyes business in Asia out of Singapore, and it's been an awesome experience to actually see how well received [the company] is all around the world. 

We'd launched in the UK, Switzerland and Brazil a few years ago. What we see every time we enter these new markets is that we're met with great fanfare. This distinct Cajun profile is something people from other places really want to try.

We want to say that Popeyes transcends borders, but at the same time, the ability to tailor and localize the product has also been critical to global success. 

If you go to Vietnam, you are going to see spicier flavor profiles than what you'll find in the U.S. We actually call it "Asia Spicy" because it's slightly spicier. 

If you go to China and try our chicken sandwich in China, it's not white meat. It's actually dark meat with the skin on it. It's a different protein: equally delicious but tailored to the market.

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Sex work is real work: Global COVID-19 recovery needs to include sex workers

Societally, we need to recognize that sex workers have agency and deserve the same respect, dignity and aid as any other person selling their labour.



Globally, sex workers have been left to fend for themselves during the pandemic with little to no support from the government. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)

During the pandemic, business shifted from in person to work-from-home, which quickly became the new normal. However, it left many workers high and dry, especially those with less “socially acceptable” occupations.

The pandemic has adversely impacted sex workers globally and substantially increased the precariousness of their profession. And public health measures put in place made it almost impossible for sex workers to provide any in-person service.

Although many people depend on sex work for survival, its criminalization and policing stigmatizes sex workers.

Research shows that globally, sex workers have been left behind and in most cases excluded from government economic support initiatives and social policies. There needs to be an intersectional approach to global COVID-19 recovery that considers everyone’s lived realities. We propose policy recommendations that treat sex work as decent work and that centre around the lived experiences and rights of those in the profession.

Sex work and the pandemic

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) recently reported that apart from income-loss, the pandemic has increased pre-existing inequalities for sex workers.

In a survey conducted in Eastern and Southern Africa, the UNFPA found that during the pandemic, 49 per cent of sex workers experienced police violence (including sexual violence) while 36 per cent reported arbitrary arrests. The same survey reported that more than 50 per cent of respondents experienced food and housing crises.

Lockdowns and border closures adversely impacted Thailand’s tourism industry which relies partially on the labour of sex workers.

Read more: Sex workers are criminalized and left without government support during the coronavirus pandemic

In the Asia Pacific, sex workers reported having limited access to contraceptives and lubricants along with reduced access to harm reduction resources. Lockdowns also disrupted STI or HIV testing services, limiting sex workers’ access to necessary healthcare.

In North America, sex workers have been excluded from the government’s recovery response. And many began offering online services to sustain themselves.

A woman stands backlit next to a dimly lit bus that reads 'Thailand' with green lighting.
Sex workers stand in a largely shut-down red light area in Bangkok, Thailand on March 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Government vs. community response

Globally, sex workers have been left to fend for themselves during the pandemic with little to no support from the government. But communities themselves have been rallying.

Elene Lam, founder of Butterfly, an Asian migrant sex organization in Canada, talks about the resilience of sex wokers during the pandemic.

She says organizations like the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform are working in collaboration with Amnesty International to mobilize income support and resources to help sex workers in Canada.

Organizations in the United Kingdom, Germany, India and Spain have also set up emergency support funds. And some sex worker organizations have developed community-specific resources for providing services both in person and online during the pandemic.

Global recovery needs to include sex workers

The International Labour Organization’s “Decent Work Agenda” emphasizes productive employment and decent working conditions as being the driving force behind poverty reduction.

Sociologist Cecilia Benoit explains that sex work often becomes a “livelihood strategy” in the face of income and employment instability. She says that like other personal service workers, sex workers also should be able to practice without any interference or violence.

In order to have an inclusive COVID-19 recovery for all, governments need to work to extend social guarantees to sex workers — so far they haven’t.

As pandemic restrictions disappear, it is crucial to ensure that everyone involved in sex work is protected under the law and has access to accountability measures.

A woman stands wearing a mask with a safety vest on in front of a collage of scantily clad women and a sign that reads 'nude women non stop'
A volunteer helps out at Zanzibar strip club during a low-barrier vaccination clinic for sex workers in Toronto in June 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn


As feminist researchers, we propose that sex work be brought under the broader agenda of decent work so that the people offering services are protected.

  1. Governments need to have a legal mandate for preventing sexual exploitation.

  2. Law enforcement staff need to be trained in better responding to the needs of sex workers. To intervene in and address situations of abuse or violence is critical to ensure workplace safety and harm reduction.

  3. Awareness and educational campaigns need to focus on destigmatizing sex work.

  4. Policy-makers need to incorporate intersectionality as a working principle in identifying and responding to the different axes of oppression and marginalization impacting LGBTQ+ and racialized sex workers.

  5. Engagement with sex workers and human rights organizations need to happen when designing aid support to ensure that an inclusive pathway for recovery is created.

  6. Globally, there needs to be a steady commitment towards destigmatizing sex workers and their services.

Despite the gradual waning of pandemic restrictions, sex workers continue to face the dual insecurity of social discrimination and loss of income support. Many are still finding it difficult to stay afloat and sustain themselves.

Societally, we need to recognize that sex workers have agency and deserve the same respect, dignity and aid as any other person selling their labour.

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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OU researchers award two NSF pandemic prediction and prevention projects

Two groups of researchers at the University of Oklahoma have each received nearly $1 million grants from the National Science Foundation as part of its…



Two groups of researchers at the University of Oklahoma have each received nearly $1 million grants from the National Science Foundation as part of its Predictive Intelligence for Pandemic Prevention initiative, which focuses on fundamental research and capabilities needed to tackle grand challenges in infectious disease pandemics through prediction and prevention.

Credit: Photo provided by the University of Oklahoma.

Two groups of researchers at the University of Oklahoma have each received nearly $1 million grants from the National Science Foundation as part of its Predictive Intelligence for Pandemic Prevention initiative, which focuses on fundamental research and capabilities needed to tackle grand challenges in infectious disease pandemics through prediction and prevention.

To date, researchers from 20 institutions nationwide were selected to receive an NSF PIPP Award. OU is the only university to receive two grants to the same institution.

“The next pandemic isn’t a question of ‘if,’ but ‘when,’” said OU Vice President for Research and Partnerships Tomás Díaz de la Rubia. “Research at the University of Oklahoma is going to help society be better prepared and responsive to future health challenges.”

Next-Generation Surveillance

David Ebert, Ph.D., professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering in the Gallogly College of Engineering, is the principal investigator on one of the projects, which explores new ways of sharing, integrating and analyzing data using new and traditional data sources. Ebert is also the director of the Data Institute for Societal Challenges at OU, which applies OU expertise in data science, artificial intelligence, machine learning and data-enabled research to solving societal challenges.

While emerging pathogens can circulate among wild or domestic animals before crossing over to humans, the delayed response to the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for new early detection methods, more effective data management, and integration and information sharing between officials in both public and animal health.

Ebert’s team, composed of experts in data science, computer engineering, public health, veterinary sciences, microbiology and other areas, will look to examine data from multiple sources, such as veterinarians, agriculture, wastewater, health departments, and outpatient and inpatient clinics, to potentially build algorithms to detect the spread of signals from one source to another. The team will develop a comprehensive animal and public health surveillance, planning and response roadmap that can be tailored to the unique needs of communities.

“Integrating and developing new sources of data with existing data sources combined with new tools for detection, localization and response planning using a One Health approach could enable local and state public health partners to respond more quickly and effectively to reduce illness and death,” Ebert said. “This planning grant will develop proof-of-concept techniques and systems in partnership with local, state and regional public health officials and create a multistate partner network and design for a center to prevent the next pandemic.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes One Health as an approach that bridges the interconnections between people, animals, plants and their shared environment to achieve optimal health outcomes.

Co-principal investigators on the project include Michael Wimberly, Ph.D., professor in the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences; Jason Vogel, Ph.D., director of the Oklahoma Water Survey and professor in the Gallogly College of Engineering School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science; Thirumalai Venkatesan, director of the Center for Quantum Research and Technology in the Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences; and Aaron Wendelboe, Ph.D., professor in the Hudson College of Public Health at the OU Health Sciences Center.

Predicting and Preventing the Next Avian Influenza Pandemic

Several countries have experienced deadly outbreaks of avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu, that have resulted in the loss of billions of poultry, thousands of wild waterfowl and hundreds of humans. Researchers at the University of Oklahoma are taking a unique approach to predicting and preventing the next avian influenza pandemic.

Xiangming Xiao, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Microbiology and Plant Biology and director of the Center for Earth Observation and Modeling in the Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences, is leading a project to assemble a multi-institutional team that will explore pathways for establishing an International Center for Avian Influenza Pandemic Prediction and Prevention.

The goal of the project is to incorporate and understand the status and major challenges of data, models and decision support tools for preventing pandemics. Researchers hope to identify future possible research and pathways that will help to strengthen and improve the capability and capacity to predict and prevent avian influenza pandemics.

“This grant is a milestone in our long-term effort for interdisciplinary and convergent research in the areas of One Health (human-animal-environment health) and big data science,” Xiao said. “This is an international project with geographical coverage from North America, Europe and Asia; thus, it will enable OU faculty and students to develop greater ability, capability, capacity and leaderships in prediction and prevention of global avian influenza pandemic.”

Other researchers on Xiao’s project include co-principal investigators A. Townsend Peterson, Ph.D., professor at the University of Kansas; Diann Prosser, Ph.D., research wildlife ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey; and Richard Webby, Ph.D., director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Wayne Marcus Getz, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is also assisting on the project.

The National Science Foundation grant for Ebert’s research is set to end Jan. 31, 2024, while Xiao’s grant will end Dec. 31, 2023.

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Pfizer vaults into sickle cell market as GBT deal confirmed

Pfizer’s reported interest in acquiring sickle cell disease specialist Global Blood Therapeutics (GBT)  has been confirmed, with the
The post Pfizer…



Pfizer’s reported interest in acquiring sickle cell disease specialist Global Blood Therapeutics (GBT)  has been confirmed, with the $68.50-per-share deal valuing GBT at $5.4 billion.

As we reported this morning, the deal gives Pfizer already-approved SCD therapy Oxbryta (voxelator) – which industry watchers reckon could see a dramatic uptick in sales with Pfizer’s marketing muscle – plus a phase 3 antibody candidate, a phase 1 follow-up to Oxbryta that could offer improved dosing.

Oxbryta is the main asset in the deal, with Evaluate predicting sales could reach $1.5 billion in 2028 – a leap forward from the $195 million it made last year and $127 million in the first half of 2022.

Pfizer is expecting big things from the takeover , predicting that the company’s SCD franchise will bring in combined peak sales of more than $3 billion.

The boards of both companies have recommended the deal to shareholders, and the two companies suggested it should close before the end of the year – assuming of course it doesn’t fall foul of any antitrust issues raised by financial regulators.

The GBT deal comes at a time when the market for SCD therapies is undergoing significant change, with multiple new drugs reaching the market after years of stagnation and progress also being made with genetic therapies from the likes of bluebird bio, Vertex Pharma/CRISPR Therapeutics and Precision Bio/Novartis.

Oxbryta came to market in 2019, a few days after Novartis’ injectable anti-P-selectin antibody Adakveo (crizanlizumab), which is also tipped for blockbuster sales but like Oxbryta has suffered from a slow rollout.

CRISPR Therapeutics and Vertex are also in the running with their gene-editing candidate CTX001, in phase 1/2 trials which are due to generate final results later this year. If those results are positive the partners have said they could file for approval in the US before year-end.

Meanwhile, bluebird bio’s one-time gene therapy  lovotibeglogene autotemcel is supposed to be heading for regulatory filing in the US next year, although it has been delayed by an FDA partial clinical hold implemented after a persistent case of anaemia was seen in one adolescent patient in a clinical trial.

GBT’s inclacumab – another P-selectin antibody that could encroach on Adakveo – is in a pair of phase 3 trials due to generate results next year.

Meanwhile, there are a couple of orally-active pyruvate kinase R activators from Forma Therapeutics and Agios – etavopivat and mitapivat, respectively – in mid-stage development, and Pfizer has its own SCD candidate in PF-07209326, an E-selectin anatomist in phase 1.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t Pfizer’s first deal in SCD. In 2011 it paid $340 million for rights to rivipansel, a pan-selectin antagonist developed by GlycoMimetics, which failed a phase 3 test in 2019 and was jettisoned by Pfizer the following year.

The deal is another example of Pfizer splashing out on business development thanks to windfall cash generated by its COVID-19 vaccine Comirnaty and oral antiviral therapy Paxlovid. It comes shortly after the group closed a $6.7 billion acquisition of Arena Pharma, bringing on board etrasimod in late-stage testing for ulcerative colitis, and made an $11.6 billion takeover bid for Biohaven and its migraine therapy Nurtec ODT (rimegepant).

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