I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the home of Popeyes's first franchise. It opened when I was five, in 1976. I loved their fried chicken, most memorably at Mardi Gras where we devoured it cold while watching the parades. I might now be a food writer who came of age in San Francisco while Alice Waters was peaking, but my roots are dripping in greasy, crispy, delicious, factory-farmed chicken.
Today, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen is owned by AFC Enterprises and is traded on NASDAQ. It has over 2,000 locations around the world—including a 28-year-old one on the stretch of Divisadero Street in what used to be known as the Western Addition, but now is called Nopa (thanks in part to the beloved restaurant directly across from the fried chicken franchise).
As of this month, the long-term lease for that Popeyes is up for grabs. Watching the neighborhood change, the owners have decided to try to make some more money. You can’t knock them for that. But you may not be surprised to learn that there have been howls of protest around the potential loss of Popeyes. As we all know, ours is a city that both dons rose-colored Google Glass, and also fiercely defends the existing order. We excel in both mobile apps and stationary nostalgia. An acquaintance of mine, a communication designer at eBay and a resident of the neighborhood, citing the days when people barbecued on the sidewalks of the Western Addition, puts it this way: “I feel like living in San Francisco sometimes feels like a giant bubble, but this neighborhood felt like it was living the truth.”
I know what she means. She liked the neighborhood for many of the reasons why urban dwellers move to cities (while others flee to Marin): its socioeconomic diversity and cultural mix. But while I understand having a tear in our eye about the loss of an old timer mom ‘n’ pop, mourning Popeye’s presents a juicy double standard. Popeye’s goes against everything San Franciscans love to promote. Though it is definitely cheap and thus affordable for all, it is most definitely not a small, locally owned businesses; it's not environmentally sustainable; it's not committed to animal welfare; it doesn't serve healthy food; it has terrible interior design; yadayadayada. Do we not see the irony here? Imagine the opposite scenario—if Popeyes had never existed on Divisadero, but in 2014, the franchise announced they were going to open next door to Nopa. I'm sure the chain protesters, lead by Chicken John readied with a bucket of chicken feces, would be out in full force. Not to mention, the Planning Department—whose goal under section 703.3 is to "protect San Francisco's vibrant small business sector and create a supportive environment for new small business innovations"—would definitely have a thing or two to say about it.
Though this Popeyes is not necessarily going to close, there’s a good chance that it might. That means the neighborhood—one that’s already gotten the Mission District treatment—might change even more. Today, the barbers, wig sellers, and auto mechanics who once defined Divisadero have new, decidedly fancier, though locally-owned, neighbors—La Urbana, the new Bi-Rite, the Mill (yes, home of the much maligned $4 toast), and as of this week, 4505 Meats, which took over Da Pitt, a barbecue joint that people loved for its name even if, as barbecue joints go, it wasn’t da best. Some of these new business owners moved onto Divis in part because they felt that this part of the city was “real.” Jeremy Tooker, the owner of Four Barrel and The Mill, told me in an interview once that the existence of Da Pitt and Popeye’s was in part what brought him to the hood.
Rachel Levin, a writer and former San Francisco staffer, who lived in the neighborhood when the space that houses Nopa was a washed up laundromat, two-thumbed me her two cents from her iPhone: “I’d wait for the bus on the corner everyday, smelling the greasy fried Popeyes smell, staring at the eyesore of a sign, complaining to my roommate, 'I wish it would go away!' I grew up in a suburb of chain restaurants and didn’t move to San Francisco to live across from Popeyes. I wanted a real restaurant to take its place."
She continued (impressively still on her iPhone), “I've been good with Helen’s wig shop and Eddie’s Cafe happily coexisting with Ragazza and Nopa's elderflower gimlet. But now I'm not sure I need a new restaurant to take Popeyes place. We have plenty of those. But only one Popeyes.”
The question we nostalgia-wrapped San Franciscans need to ask ourselves is, do we even need that one?