x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Nobody in here but us chickens

Saloon Slow days and fast nights at our finest purveyor of fried fowl. Sarah Wolff scores an afternoon date at Popeyes.

Popeyes can polish off four large packages of chicken - each containing 240 pieces - during the Iftar rush alone.
Popeyes can polish off four large packages of chicken - each containing 240 pieces - during the Iftar rush alone.

Slow days and fast nights at our finest purveyor of fried fowl. Sarah Wolff scores an afternoon date at Popeyes.
Visitors to the Arab world might be surprised to find a proliferation of the fast-food fried chicken establishments whose popularity has waned somewhat in the West. Bahrain, Jordan and the land of the two mosques, Saudi Arabia, all have outposts of KFC (formerly, in less fat-conscious times, known as Kentucky Fried Chicken). Though much of the developed world blanches at the mere mention of trans-fats, the battered chicken business is booming in Arab lands. When the first Popeyes Famous Fried Chicken restaurant opened its doors in 1972, it was in Arabi, Louisiana - clearly a sign of things to come.

The holy month of Ramadan is a mixed blessing for the purveyors of thighs and breasts - business colder than coleslaw during the day and hotter than a vat of bubbling oil after fasts are broken. I took a visit to Popeyes to check the temperature. At Popeyes business goes slightly undercover for the month of fasting. Though the restaurant ostensibly remains open to cater to non-Muslims, like many similar establishments it maintains a "don't ask, don't tell" policy towards its customers' religion. Cashiers at Popeye's are preternaturally cheery, perky and obliging - an almost superhuman service demeanour that only recedes when they're asked to divulge the dark meat from the chicken's underbelly.

Inside Popeyes I ask the cashier for a soda and tell him that I'd like to sit for a while. "But you know you can't drink the soda in here, ma'am," he informs me politely. I remain undaunted. "Even in the back?" I say. He smiles and hands over the soda, with an equally polite warning to watch out for other diners. This, I think, should not be a problem, considering that at the peak of the lunchtime rush there are all of zero customers in the restaurant. During the couple of sleepy hours of my Popeyes stakeout, only a handful of customers strolled through the doors for some takeaway wings, but the cashiers did ferry more than a few orders into the car park.

The cashier on duty tells me he suspects a few customers are cheating on their fasts. "I bring it out to their cars," he giggles. "That's the way they do it - they don't want to come in and be scolded." "Sometimes I ask, 'Are you allowed to eat?' They tell me, 'Oh, it's for my kids' even if they buy the spicy chicken," which is apparently not consumed by children, or so I assume. Though the chain is famed in the US for its chicken and biscuits, the cashier says that here customers have a particular fondness for the fried shrimp. "When I ask if they like seafood, they just go like this," he says, making an outward pounding gesture with his fist that seems to imply a certain virility. "Maybe they think it makes them strong," he suggests.

Ramadan, he tells me, offers some respite to the employees since there are fewer daytime customers, but the staff of five spend the day fussing around the counter and frying in the kitchen to prepare for Iftar. Sometimes, he tells me, this branch of Popeyes can polish off four large packages of chicken - each containing 240 pieces - during the Iftar rush alone. After frying chickens by the dozen, they are packed into smaller takeaway boxes and lined up as if in a vending machine to await the crowds of hungry fasters - and not-so-hungry fatirs.

"Iftar time is so busy," he says. "Too many people come in! They are rushing, they are hungry ... and if you tell them 'five minutes, sir', they will think it is exactly five minutes. And if it's not, they will make a big problem."
swolff@thenational.ae