Flamboyant restaurant millionaire dies at 64 - WDAM-TV 7-News, Weather, Sports-Hattiesburg, MS

New Orleans

Flamboyant restaurant millionaire dies at 64

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

stores.

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.

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

scheme.

Suvivors included five sons, four daughters, a brother and 13

grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements were pending.

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