Al Copeland, who became rich selling spicy fried chicken and notorious for his flamboyant lifestyle, died Sunday at a clinic near Munich, Germany. He was 64.
The founder of the Popeyes Famous Fried Chicken chain had been diagnosed shortly before Thanksgiving with a malignant salivary gland tumor. His death was announced by his spokeswoman, Kit Wohl.
After growing up in New Orleans, Copeland sold his car at age 18 for enough money to open a one-man doughnut shop. He went on to spend 10 modestly successful years in the doughnut business.
Inspired by the success of a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in New Orleans, Copeland in the early 1970s used his doughnut profits to open a restaurant, Chicken on the Run. (“So fast you get your chicken before you get your change.”)
After six months, Chicken on the Run was still losing money. In a last-ditch effort, Copeland chose a spicier Louisiana Cajun-style recipe and reopened the restaurant under the name Popeyes Mighty Good Fried Chicken, after Popeye Doyle, Gene Hackman’s character in the film “The French Connection.” The chain that grew from that one restaurant became Popeyes Famous Fried Chicken.
Copeland’s revived chicken restaurant soon broke the profit barrier.
Franchising began in 1976, and the chain grew to more than 800 stores in the United States and several foreign countries by 1989.
In 1983, he founded Copeland’s of New Orleans, a casual dining, Cajun-style restaurant. In the next two decades, the chain expanded as far east as Maryland and west into Texas. He also started Copeland’s Cheesecake Bistro; Sweet, Fire & Ice restaurants; and Al’s Diversified Foods & Seasonings, a line of specialty foods and spices for large national restaurant chains.
In March 1989, Popeyes -- then the third-largest chicken chain -- purchased Church’s Chicken, the second-largest behind KFC. The two chains, operated separately, gave Copeland more than 2,000 locations.
The deal was heavily financed, however, and escalating debt forced Copeland’s company to file for bankruptcy in 1991. Copeland lost both firms.
Copeland frequently made headlines away from his business empire.
His hobbies included racing 50-foot powerboats, touring New Orleans in Rolls-Royces and Lamborghinis, and outfitting his Lake Pontchartrain home with lavish Christmas decorations, including half a million lights and a three-story-tall snowman. The display drew a lawsuit in 1983 from neighbors who said the resulting traffic held them hostage in their own homes.
Copeland’s survivors include five sons, four daughters, a brother and 13 grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements were pending.