Al Copeland, who became rich selling spicy
fried chicken and notorious for his flamboyant lifestyle,
extravagant weddings, bitter divorces and lawsuits over Christmas
decorations, died Sunday at a clinic near Munich, Germany.
Copeland, who was 64, 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 his own one-man doughnut shop. He quickly
turned the shop into a moneymaker and went on to spend 10 modestly
successful years in the doughnut business.
The opening of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in New
Orleans in 1966, however, caught Copeland's eye, especially when he
found it offered a shorter workday and about four times as much
money per week as his doughnut shop.
Inspired by KFC's success, Copeland in 1971 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 short of the break-even
point. In a last-ditch effort in the chicken business, he 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 the one restaurant became
Popeyes Famous Fried Chicken.
In its third week of operation, Copeland's revived chicken
restaurant broke the profit barrier.
Franchising began in 1976 and the company 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 causal dining,
Cajun style restaurant. In the next two decades the chain expanded
as far as Maryland and west into Texas.
He also started Copeland's Cheesecake Bistro and Fire and Ice
restaurants and Al's Diversified Food & 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. The two chains,
operated separately, gave Copeland more than 2,000 locations.
The Church's purchase was heavily financed, however, and
escalating debt forced Copeland to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy
protection for the company in April 1991. Although Copeland lost
both Church's and Popeyes in the bankruptcy, he retained the rights
to some Popeyes products, which he manufactured through his
Diversified Foods & Seasonings plants, along with a few Popeyes
Copeland frequently made headlines away from his business
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.
In 1983, he was sued by his neighbors to remove the Christmas
light display, which he said cost about $50,000 a month in
electricity. The display attracted so many visitors the street was
blocked for hours every night. Neighbors said they were held
hostage in their own homes.
Ten years later, Copeland made an unsuccessful bid for a
Louisiana gambling license. The successful bidder, Robert Guidry,
later testified that he had bribed then-Gov. Edwin Edwards to
secure the license.
In 2001, Guidry and Copeland ran into each other at an upscale
restaurant in New Orleans and a fight started involving Copeland,
Guidry, and Guidry's sons. Witnesses said that Copeland's
then-wife, Jennifer Devall, who was six months pregnant, was
knocked to the ground during the fight, and both Copeland and his
spouse were hospitalized.
Copeland and his third wife, Luan Hunter, were married at the
New Orleans Museum of Art on Valentine's Day 1991. As they left the
ceremony rose petals were tossed from a helicopter and fireworks
exploded over the building.
The original presiding judge at Copeland's divorce from Hunter,
Ronald Bodenheimer, pleaded guilty to promising a custody deal
favorable to Copeland in return for a possible seafood contract and
other benefits. Two Copeland associates and Bodenheimer went to
federal prison for participating in the conspiracy.
Copeland was never personally accused of participating in the
Suvivors included five sons, four daughters, a brother and 13
Funeral arrangements were pending.
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