Published: March 25, 2008Al Copeland, a poor boy from New Orleans who marshaled gumption, perspicacity and a fiery fried chicken recipe to emerge as a flamboyant multimillionaire with fast speedboats and successive business empires, died Sunday in Germany near Munich. He was 64.
Mr. Copeland opened his first fried chicken stand in 1971 with the chipper slogan, “So fast you get your chicken before you get your change.” The restaurant failed. He retreated to his kitchen to fiddle with his recipe.
Mr. Copeland added more than a sprinkle of cayenne pepper and a few more secret Cajun-inspired hot spices, changed the name to Popeyes (he said he was too poor to afford an apostrophe) and by the end of the 1980s owned or franchised more than 800 of the restaurants.
The name Popeye did not come from the spinach-eating cartoon character but from the hard-nosed film detective Popeye Doyle in “The French Connection.” Mr. Copeland liked to say he loved speed and other ways of taking spectacular chances. According to The Los Angeles Times in 1997, he once told a restaurant critic, “If you’ve got a dream, you might as well dream big.”
And lose big. Mr. Copeland by 1989 owned the third biggest fried chicken chain in the United States, and borrowed heavily to buy the second-biggest, now called Church’s Chicken. It was too much debt. He soon sought bankruptcy protection.
He lost Church’s and all but a handful of Popeyes stores, but not his recipes and a lucrative contract to supply seasonings to the new owner until 2025. He went on to open restaurants bearing his surname, as well as others featuring California cuisine, wrap sandwiches and cheesecake.
His flamboyant lifestyle never lost speed, and stood out even in a city of eccentrics like New Orleans. In 2002, The Times-Picayune of New Orleans called him Louisiana’s homegrown Liberace. His gaudy Christmas decorations, with more than a million lights, drew crowds to his home and a lawsuit from the neighbors. His ever-more-elaborate weddings involved touches like thousands of rose petals falling from his company helicopter.
He set speed records piloting his 50-foot speedboat and collected Rolls-Royces, Lamborghinis and custom Jaguars. He got into a fistfight with a business rival, and had a war of words with the writer Anne Rice, best known for her romantic tales of vampires, who also lived in New Orleans.
“Gothic versus Gauche,” cracked a New Orleans bar owner, Bud Whalen, in an interview with The Los Angeles Times.
Alvin Charles Copeland was born on Feb. 2, 1944. His father left home shortly after Al, the youngest of three brothers, was born. His mother struggled to provide for them, and a grandmother and great aunt helped rear them, The Times-Picayune reported. The family ended up at a public housing project, relying on welfare. “I never forget being poor,” Mr. Copeland told The Los Angeles Times. “I know what it is, and I don’t want it.”
At 16, he dropped out of high school and got a job as a soda jerk. Two years later, he opened a Tastee Donut franchise, a gift from his brothers for the first of his four weddings.
Inspired by the opening of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in New Orleans, he opened his own restaurant, Chicken on the Run, in 1971. In addition to vivifying the recipe during his sabbatical, Mr. Copeland also came up with recipes for dirty rice and hand-rolled biscuits.
When it reopened in 1972, the restaurant was first named Popeyes Mighty Good Fried Chicken. After 13 months, and the opening of a second store, “mighty good” became “famous.”
Mr. Copeland tried to diversify into riverboat gambling, but lost the license competition to another New Orleans businessman. When the two were given adjacent tables in a steakhouse in 2001, a brawl erupted. Mr. Copeland’s rival and two sons were charged with battery. Mr. Copeland was not charged.
His Copeland’s casual restaurant chain, offering New Orleans-style cuisine, achieved more success. It features several unique cocktails, including the Crash and Burn — a large cocktail for two to three people.
Aside from mounting his annual barrage of Christmas decorations, Mr. Copeland is best known locally for his marriages, all four of which ended in divorce. Some thought the most spectacular wedding was the third, with the heart-shaped fireworks: “Al, I’ll love you forever, Luan.”
Others treasure the memory of the last, for which Mr. Copeland transformed his mansion in Metairie, La., into a Disney castle with 10,000 white roses; a snow machine; and four Christmas trees spinning upside down.
More quietly, Mr. Copeland established the Alvin C. Copeland Endowed Chair of Franchising at Louisiana State University. He also underwrote Christmas gifts for 1,000 needy children each year.
Mr. Copeland is survived by his sons, Alvin Jr., Christopher, Alex, Chandler and Chaz; his daughters, Bonnie Copeland, Alisha Copeland, Charlotte Womac and Cassidy Copeland; and 13 grandchildren.
Mr. Copeland’s dispute with Ms. Rice involved his opening a restaurant in a former car dealership, a site from which her most popular vampire, Lestat, had disappeared. She called the cumulative effect of Mr. Copeland’s metallic palm trees, golden statues of panthers and neon lights “a monstrosity.” He countered that he would put a little more garlic in the food at the restaurant to fend off vampires.
Mr. Copeland planned for his death by building a family tomb for 14 caskets, with four fluted columns and a bronze double door.
FOUNDER OF POPEYES IS IN THE MIDDLE: AL COPELAND