Al Copeland is dead
Al Copeland, a hard-charging, high-living entrepreneur who built an empire on spicy fried chicken and fluffy white biscuits, died Sunday in Munich, Germany, of complications from cancer treatment. He was 64.
He had gone to Munich for treatment of his illness, which had been diagnosed in November, said Kit Wohl, his spokeswoman.
Born in poverty, Mr. Copeland burst onto the scene in 1972, when he opened his first Popeyes fried-chicken stand, in Arabi. It was the start of a franchise that, under his leadership, had 700 outlets, not only in the United States but also in Puerto Rico, Panama and Kuwait.
The money he earned led to public displays of opulence such as speedboats, which he displayed in a glass-walled showroom along Interstate 10 when he wasn’t racing them; a Lamborghini sports car parked outside his corporate headquarters; and, of course, his massive Christmas displays, which required sheriff’s deputies to direct the traffic outside his Metairie home.
There also were two over-the-top weddings with such touches as fireworks and a model of Cinderella’s pumpkin coach. These weddings ended in equally spectacular divorces; the divorce proceedings from his third wife wound up bringing down the original judge hearing the case as part of a massive federal investigation of courthouse corruption.
During Carnival, Mr. Copeland not only sponsored parade floats in Jefferson Parish but also rode, said Peter Ricchiuti, a Tulane University finance professor who saw Mr. Copeland in one such procession.
Ricchiuti said he overheard this exchange between two other spectators: One man dismissed the spectacle as an indication of new money, but the other man replied, “If I had money, that’s what I’d do.”
Not even bankruptcy — the result of buying Church’s Fried Chicken Inc. — stopped him. Although Mr. Copeland lost ownership of his chicken outlets, he retained control of the company making the distinctive spice mixture, and he went on to open restaurants bearing his surname, as well as establishments featuring California cuisine, wrap sandwiches, cheesecake and Asian fare.
One such restaurant — Straya on St. Charles Avenue — triggered a noisy public feud in 1997 with the vampire novelist Anne Rice. She used her voice-mail message and a series of full-page advertisements in The Times-Picayune to attack the restaurant’s decor, which included tasseled black curtains and a pair of sleek black-leopard sculptures flanking the entrance to the rest-room area.
“The humblest flop house on this strip of St. Charles Avenue has more dignity than Mr. Copeland’s structure,” she said in her opening salvo.
One reason she felt so passionately about the building at 2001 St. Charles Avenue, was that she said that the Vampire Lestat, her dominant character, left her there, before Straya opened, after seeing his reflection in the window of what had been a Mercedes-Benz dealership. Rice also said she had planned to open a restaurant, Cafe Lestat, in a Magazine Street building she owned, but that never materialized.
Mr. Copeland’s response, also in a full-page ad in The Times-Picayune, was good-humored, offering to treat her to dinner and to help her find Lestat. He even spoke of launching a month-long “Find Lestat” promotion and dressing his staff like vampires.
But he also filed suit, claiming that she had defamed him and that she violated fair-trade laws because “her comments were made in the context of her being a business competitor,” Mr. Copeland’s lawyer said.
Civil District Judge Robin Giarrusso threw out the suit. Mr. Copeland, accepting defeat, invited Rice to dinner. Rice, who did not accept his offer, moved to California in 2004, settling in Rancho Mirage after brief stints in San Diego and La Jolla. Straya, a phonetic spelling of “strella,” the Spanish word for star, has become a Cheesecake Bistro.
This wasn’t Mr. Copeland’s only high-profile skirmish. In December 2001, he got into a fistfight with Robert Guidry, a former casino owner, and his sons in Morton’s The Steakhouse, an upscale restaurant.
The two multimillionaires had been rivals for a riverboat-casino license in 1993. Mr. Copeland lost, and he blamed Guidry. Guidry, who had built much of his fortunes on tugboats, contended Mr. Copeland had relied on connections to delay his hearing for the license.
Guidry eventually won the license with the help of then-Gov. Edwin Edwards, but only after paying an Edwards aide $100,000 a month, amounting to more than $1 million. Guidry, who pleaded guilty to an extortion conspiracy and was a key prosecution witness against Edwards, was sentenced in January 2001 to three years’ probation and ordered to pay $3.5 million in a fine and restitution.
Each man accused the other of starting the brawl, in which Mr. Copeland suffered a blow to his left cheek. Guidry and two of his sons spent the night in jail. No charges were filed, and customers requested the Copeland and Guidry tables for months after the fight.
With Mr. Copeland that night was Jennifer Devall Copeland, his fourth wife. They had gone to the restaurant to celebrate their first anniversary.
According to papers filed last year, when she and Mr. Copeland were divorced, his net worth in 2004 was about $319 million, and his annual income was about $13 million.
The weekend before Thanksgiving, Mr. Copeland learned he had cancer of the salivary glands, a rare form of the disease that strikes no more than 3 people per 100,000 annually in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.
Despite his illness and subsequent hospitalization, the Christmas display outside his house in an upscale Metairie neighborhood went on as scheduled, featuring thousands of lights, animated figures and house-size representations of a teddy bear and Raggedy Ann.
Mr. Copeland was “a classic entrepreneur,” Ricchiuti said. “He had disappointments, things that didn’t work out, but that didn’t stop him. You can’t teach that in a business school. It’s something inside you. Maybe it comes from a tremendous desire to succeed against all odds.”
Copeland, whose family lived for a while in the St. Thomas public-housing complex, never got to business school because he dropped out before he finished high school.
He told friends that the competitive spark hit him when he was working the beverage counter at a Schwegmann’s Super Market in Gentilly.
His colleague never stopped drumming up business. When Mr. Copeland asked why, the young man replied, “I’m out to prove I’m better than everybody,” said Wohl, also a local author and artist.
When he was 18, Mr. Copeland sold his car to get capital to buy a doughnut shop from his brother Gilbert, and he turned the stand into a moneymaker.
Then he watched what happened when a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet opened nearby. Inspired by the amount of business the store did, Mr. Copeland decided to start frying chicken.
After two years of testing recipes on friends and family, he opened Chicken on the Run in Arabi in 1971. Its slogan was “So fast you get your chicken before you get your change,” and Mr. Copeland stood on the neutral ground handing out fliers.
But the fledgling business struggled — perhaps, Wohl said, because Mr. Copeland was flavoring it with a mild recipe after friends had told him that the spicy version he had prepared just wouldn’t sell.
Realizing that bland fried chicken was going nowhere, Mr. Copeland started using the spicy recipe. To show that he was operating a new enterprise, he decided to change its name. According to corporate lore, he was stumped until he saw “The French Connection,” in which Gene Hackman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a brusque, no-nonsense New York City policeman.
At that point, Mr. Copeland knew the business had a name: Popeyes Mighty Good Fried Chicken. There is no apostrophe in the name, Mr. Copeland often joked, because he was too poor to afford one.
In an industry known for its high mortality rate, the restaurant started turning a profit in three weeks. Because business was so brisk, he added “Famous” to the title, Wohl said. The biscuits came later to the outlets and the corporate name after Mr. Copeland worked with the chefs Warren LeRuth and Gary Darling to devise a recipe.
The Popeyes craze was on, fueled by a wildly popular jingle — “Love that chicken from Popeyes” — that Dr. John sang. In 1977, franchising began, and within a decade Popeyes was the third-largest fast-food chicken chain in the country, behind KFC (the new corporate name for Kentucky Fried Chicken) and Church’s.
Along the way, Mr. Copeland was married twice — the first time to Mary Alice LeCompte, his childhood sweetheart, and the second time to Patty White. Both marriages ended in divorce, and the first Mrs. Copeland died in 1995.
As he built his business, Mr. Copeland developed his public persona, and he was elevated to the status of a local icon. He was a man who could be counted on to show up in a flashy car wearing flashy — usually black — clothes and looking perpetually tanned and youthful, generally sporting an earring or two. His 50-foot powerboats roared around Lake Pontchartrain, and when he raced in the United States and abroad, he met such luminaries as the deposed King Constantine of Greece, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Donald Trump and the actors Chuck Norris, Kurt Russell and Don Johnson.
Besides winning a shelf full of trophies, Mr. Copeland set up the Offshore Professional Tour, which not only became a star-studded event but also benefited charities.
Mr. Copeland became what he called a “secret Santa,” underwriting gifts for 1,000 needy children that Santa Claus delivered after dark on Christmas Eve.
And this man who never finished high school established the Alvin C. Copeland Endowed Chair of Franchising at Louisiana State University. Mr. Copeland’s money also supported the National Food Service Institute and Delgado Community College’s apprentice program for aspiring chefs.
Some of his wealth went to set up a Christmas display in his front yard that grew bigger each year — and generated so much traffic that his neighbors sued in 1983 to have it removed. They also groused about his annual party for hundreds of guests featuring a vast menu and a dance floor over the indoor swimming pool.
The outdoor spectacle was staged elsewhere around East Jefferson until 1991, when a scaled-down version returned to Mr. Copeland’s home on Folse Drive.
Coincidentally, 1991 was the year in which Mr. Copeland’s business audacity seemed to catch up with him. In 1988, he made a $296 million bid to buy Church’s.
The next year, the firm agreed to be bought out for $392 million. But to finance it, Mr. Copeland had to borrow about $450 million from a group of lending institutions.
In November 1990, Al Copeland Enterprises, the umbrella organization for Mr. Copeland’s activities, said that it was in default on $391 million in debts and that it would be bankrupt if a lender demanded payment. In September that year, it had failed to make payments totaling $7.5 million.
The banks that had lent money for the Church’s deal filed an involuntary chapter 11 petition, putting Copeland Enterprises into bankruptcy. While Mr. Copeland relinquished control of his fried-chicken enterprise, he kept control of the spice supply, a move Ricchiuti regarded as brilliant.
“He was dealing with some of the smartest bankers in the world, and he knew what to keep,” Ricchiuti said. “It might look like an insignificant component, but he outfoxed some pretty smart people.”
The bankruptcy filing came two months after his blockbuster nighttime wedding to Luan Hunter on Valentine’s Day in the New Orleans Museum of Art. Fireworks, including the display “Al I’ll love you forever Luan” lit up the sky, and the Popeyes helicopter, known as the chicken chopper, hovered low enough to scatter rose petals — and blow up a mini-dust storm.
That marriage, which actually had begun with a Las Vegas ceremony nearly four months before the museum extravaganza, lasted nine years and ended in a bitter custody fight over their son, Alex. Overshadowing that, though, was the guilty plea of Ronald Bodenheimer, the original judge presiding over the case, to charges that he promised a custody deal favorable to Mr. Copeland in return for a possible seafood contract and other benefits.
As a result of a federal inquiry called Operation Wrinkled Robe, Bodenheimer and two of Mr. Copeland’s associates went to jail for participating in the conspiracy. Bodenheimer served slightly more than three years at a low-security prison camp in Alabama. After serving time in a halfway house and home confinement at his Metairie house, he was put on three years’ probation in September. Mr. Copeland never was charged.
Even though that union ended messily, Mr. Copeland headed down the aisle one more time, in December 2000, to marry Jennifer Devall. The aisle was in St. Louis Cathedral, a fact that set tongues wagging about the propriety of such an event for the multiply divorced Mr. Copeland. However, an archdiocesan spokesman pointed out that the ceremony respected canonical rule because only one of Mr. Copeland’s weddings — his first — occurred in a church, and his wife from that wedding had died, thereby dissolving what the Catholic Church regards as a lifelong marriage bond.
The wedding had a fairy-tale beginning, with the newlyweds arriving for the reception at Mr. Copeland’s house in a horse-drawn pumpkin coach and walking beneath a line of crossed sabers held aloft by people dressed like wooden soldiers.
Despite that sparkling launch, this marriage, too, dissolved into acrimony. Mr. Copeland was arrested on a charge of domestic violence battery, and, in court papers filed in the divorce, his wife admitted to an extramarital affair.
The divorce was granted last year.
Mr. Copeland stayed busy. In addition to restaurants, he had invested in three comedy clubs and three hotels. At his death, Wohl said, a menu for a Brazilian-style restaurant was being tested in two cities in the Midwest.
That relentless activity was typical of him, Ricchiuti said.
“Once he made it, it was never enough,” he said. “Most people get top a certain comfort level, but that didn’t appeal to him at all.”
Survivors include five sons, Alvin C. Jr. and Christopher Copeland, both of Metairie, Alex Cody Copeland of Folsom and Chandler and Chaz Copeland, both of Madisonville; four daughters, Bonnie Copeland, Alisha Catherine Copeland and Charlotte Copeland Womac, all of Metairie; and Cassidy Copeland of Madisonville; a brother, Gilbert Copeland of Covington; and 13 grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.