popeyes china

Once-viral Fast-food Chain Popeyes Quietly Retreats From China (or Has It?)

Popeyes has closed all nine of its restaurants in China, but the American fried chicken brand might not be gone for good...

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Hayley Zhao
12:17 PM HKT, Sat April 29, 2023 1 mins read

Popeyes’ last Shanghai restaurant put up a ‘temporarily closed’ sign on April 18, spelling an uncertain future for the American fast-food chain’s once-promising prospects in China.

The fried chicken brand, which arrived in China with a viral splash, is now wholly unavailable after fewer than three years of operation. The news spread swiftly on the social media platform Weibo, where a related hashtag has racked up more than 4 million views.

popeyes shanghai

The last Popeyes store in Shanghai closed its doors on April 18. Image via Xiaohongshu

Online, people were surprised by the brand’s sudden demise. During the grand opening of Popeyes’ first Shanghai flagship store in 2020, scores of people waited as long as eight hours to taste its signature fried chicken and biscuits.

Following the launch of the initial Popeyes location, the brand opened eight more stores in Shanghai and surrounding cities like Nanjing and Hangzhou. Raphael Coelho, CEO of Popeyes China, spoke of plans to open more than 1,500 stores in the country over the next decade, although that clearly didn’t pan out.

Seven of China’s Popeyes locations closed their doors last August, signaling the brand’s faltering fortunes in the Chinese market. Following the initial string of closures, Popeyes stated on Weibo that the shutdowns were only temporary, although the announcement didn’t do much to quell online speculation.

“Can’t you make it the same as the U.S.? Don’t localize it for Chinese markets, it doesn’t taste as good,” wrote one unimpressed netizen.

popeyes china

Popeyes announced that their store closures were only temporary in August 2022. Image via Weibo

Many suspect the sudden closure of Popeyes’ China locations isn’t related to popularity or revenue. Instead, the decision to pull out may stem from a dispute between Popeyes’ parent company, Restaurant Brands International (RBI), and its Chinese operating partner — Turkey’s TAB Foods Investments (TFI), which also operates Burger King in the country.

fried chicken china

Popeye’s signature chicken bucket and chicken sandwich. Image via Weibo

However, Popeye’s exit this time might be temporary. The brand seems to have parted ways with TFI and secured itself a new Chinese operator: Tims China. Also owned by RBI, Tims China announced that it had won exclusive rights for the development of Popeyes in Macau and the Chinese mainland in February 2023. It remains to be seen what the new partner has in mind for the future of Popeyes in the country.

If Popeyes does return, it won’t be the first time the company has pulled out of China only to return at a later date. The chain first tested the waters back in 1999 with a store in Beijing but shut it down by the end of 2002.

The competition is fierce in China’s 195.9 billion USD fast food market — and with major American brands like KFC and McDonald’s dominating the landscape through localization, it isn’t easy for new players to break in.

Cover image via Depositphotos

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