Remembering a Legend
SUCCESSFUL RESTAURATEUR, QUIET HUMANITARIAN, AND INSPIRATION TO MANY
Alvin Charles Copeland, a restaurateur known for his brilliant business sense and extravagant lifestyle, passed away on Easter Sunday March 23, 2008 outside of Munich, Germany of complications from treatment of Merkel Cell Carcinoma, an extremely rare and aggressive cancer. He was 64.
Diagnosed shortly before Thanksgiving, Al approached his last battle like a true champion. As was genuinely his nature, Al researched every available treatment and sought out the very best methods available. Although he was quite ill toward the end of his life, Al never thought of himself as suffering. He would say that his ordeal, although truly painful and tedious, was “nothing”. “People go through much worse every day,” he would say.
That was the way he viewed things. Al Copeland was grateful for everything he had despite his vast resources. He wanted to help everyone and more importantly feed everyone. In fact, every time one of his grandchildren was born, Al would bring Popeyes chicken to the entire floor of the hospital. Even when he was ill himself, the nurses got chicken.
“Al was a local icon, the stuff of legends. A folk hero, he lived his dreams. He found success in adversity and good fortune in family. He had a joyous time doing it. Controversy only engaged his competitive spirit. He loved spice and speed,” said Kit Wohl, Al’s longtime friend.
Of course, Al is most famous for founding Popeyes Famous Fried Chicken and developing its well-known and loved recipe (still a closely guarded secret). He was the “come back kid”; a true rags-to-riches success story. In addition to his more famous accomplishments, there were many lesser-known sides to his iconic character.
For instance, a huge part of him was dedicated to charity and to the improvement of his beloved city and state.
In 1989, the $1 million Alvin C. Copeland Endowed Chair of Franchising was established at Louisiana State University. As part of the Eminent Scholars Program, the endowment provides for the development of a full curriculum of franchising studies at both the undergraduate and graduate level. As a result, June 28, 1989 was named “Al Copeland Day” in both the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana.
Copeland also supported other education programs such as the National Food Service Institute, the Chefs Apprentice Program at Delgado Community College, and the IFA to name a few.
Al was also famous for his elaborate decorations at his Metairie home. However, his love of Christmas extended much deeper than that. It was his greatest joy to personally hand out candy canes and stuffed animals to the children who came by to see the decorations.
There was also his secret Santa program that went on for a number of years. “I want to give 1,000 children a real Christmas,” he said. “Santa and his elf should ring the doorbell after dark on Christmas Eve,” he specified, “They must have a sack of presents, wrapped and labeled by name—a big gift and some small ones and a stocking for each child. The elf must have a camera, to take two photographs. One for the family and one for me.”
That meant more than 3,000 gifts, 1,000 Christmas stockings, cameras, elves, and Santas complete with costumes. He inspected every gift, discarding some as not big enough, exciting, or special. An entire floor at Popeye’s headquarters was dedicated to a massive corporate “wrap-a-thon” between Thanksgiving and the week before Christmas. The Knights of Columbus and Knights of Peter Claver identified the families by Catholic Parish, and provided a list of names, ages, addresses, and telephone numbers to call the families in advance.
Al refused media coverage for the event. He felt it would spoil the mystery of Santa Claus for children.
Al Copeland never did anything on a small scale. Everything had to be the best, and he had to be the best at everything. He was known worldwide for his activities in the sport of offshore powerboat racing. Driving his boats to unprecedented fame in racing history, he brought fun and show business to the sport. He won the internationally prestigious Harmsworth Trophy, the coveted World Championship, and the National US #1 high point championship six out of six times running. He went on to help found the new powerboat association.
When crew and friends used inappropriate language on the race site, he would take a $100 bill from the offender (he often had to pay the fine himself). On the way out of town, he would stop at a Catholic Church and stuff the poor box.
Al Copeland took joy in shaking things up. After the famous war of words with author Anne Rice, he threw garlic from his converted boat during the Mardi Gras parades.
Another public battle was over tomatoes. The late Johnny Becnel was well known for the kickoff to the Creole tomato season, showing up at the French Market annually to auction off the first Plaquemines Parish Creoles of the year. Al Copeland and Paul Prudhomme duked it out at the auction, ending up at an astonishing $10,000 for the first case, then as gentlemen, split it. The money went to Becnel’s workers, who tended the crop and the tomatoes to Copeland’s Restaurants and K-Paul’s.
Al won numerous awards as well. The International Franchise Association named him 1989 Entrepreneur of the Year. A MUFSO Golden Chain recipient in 1988, he was named to the Louisiana’s Restaurant Association Hall of Fame in 1995. In recognition of his many contributions to the community, LRA honored Al Copeland with their first Service to Humanity Award in 1993, the same year he received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Popeyes.
Al Copeland also was an incredibly spiritual person. He traveled to Rome and visited the Vatican shortly before he sought treatment in Germany. He also bathed in the healing waters at Lourdes, France. He prayed nightly and went to Catholic Mass every Sunday.
Al Copeland inspired a great number of people and touched so many lives. He is survived not only by his family and friends, but also by the thousands of people who worked with him around the world, across America, and throughout New Orleans.
As Chris Rose aptly wrote, “He [Al] was our Elvis…The chicken king has left the building.”
His parents, William Allen Copeland Jr. and Augusta Marie Comeaux Copeland, and his brother, William Allen Copeland III, precede Al Copeland in death.
He is survived by his beloved children Alvin C. Copeland, Jr., Bonnie Ann Copeland, Christopher Allen Copeland, Alisha Catherine Copeland, Charlotte Copeland Womac, Alex Cody Copeland, Chandler Alvin Copeland, Casidy Johnette Copeland, and Chaz William Copeland, a daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Trentadue Copeland, a son-in-law, Douglas James Womac, Jr., his grandchildren, Allison Copeland Fitzsimmons, Christina Copeland Theriot, Ashley Ann Copeland, Crystal Copeland Theriot, Christen Copeland Theriot, Alexandria Catherine Copeland, Ariel Lynne Copeland, Candace Copeland Theriot, Alyssa Mary Copeland, Angela Catherine Bruchis, Christopher Allen Copeland, Jr., Avery Ariel Bruchis, Colin Douglas Womac, and Addison Kathryn Womac.
He is also survived by his brother, Gil Copeland and his two sisters-in-law, Jean Copeland and Laura Copeland.