Popeyes 'Famous' creator Al Copeland dies

Copeland built big, risked it all - and lost. Then he began building again.

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Al Copeland, founder of Popeyes Famous Fried Chicken, died Sunday at age 64, succumbing to salivary glands cancer. The Louisiana native built one of the country's largest fried chicken chains before losing the business - only to start again.

A high school dropout, Copeland began capturing public attention in 1972, when he opened Popeyes Mighty Good Fried Chicken in Arabi, La. The spicy Cajun flavor, well-suited to local tastes, caught on quickly, laying the foundations of Copeland's fast-food empire.

"Once he understood who the target market was, who the target customers were, he then developed the cuisine to fit that customer. And I think that's his big secret," said Robert Justis, a business professor at Louisiana State University who knew Copeland for more than 20 years.

"Mighty good" soon became "Famous," and by the late nineties Popeyes trailed only Kentucky Fried Chicken and Church's Chicken in size.

But Copeland's ambition led to a fall: In 1989, Popeyes bought out the rival Church's. Two years later, the company filed for bankruptcy. Copeland lost Popeyes - but he held onto some of its recipes, which helped him generate capital to seed his later ventures. A restless entrepreneur, Copeland opened new restaurants, dabbled in hotels, even acquired a comedy club, but never again succeeded on the scale of Popeyes.

He kept in daily contact with business associates even near the end, said Kit Wohl, Copeland's spokeswoman. Divorce papers filed last year show Copeland had a net worth of $319 million in 2004, with a $13 million yearly income, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Copeland might have made it big again, if not for illness.

"Most people kind of run out of ideas. He never seemed that way at all," said Peter Ricchiuti, assistant dean at Tulane University's Freeman business school. "It was just a matter of running out of time." To top of page

Dagwood opens shop: Popeyes former marketing head opens up a new chain of sandwich stores.
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