Al Copeland had a fervor for living life to the fullest and was an inspiration to many. After losing his life to Merkel Cell Carcinoma, the Al Copeland Foundation (ACF) was established by his children to carry on their Dad’s wish to cure cancer.
Alvin Charles Copeland, or “Big Al”, was a restaurateur known for his brilliant business sense and extravagant lifestyle. He was world renowned for founding Popeyes Famous Fried Chicken, offshore powerboat racing, elaborate Christmas displays and more.
Your ability to succeed depends on your ability to change.
Al loved New Orleans and he was as “New Orleans” as they come. Chris Rose, a New York Times Best-Selling New Orleans, Louisiana, writer and journalist, once said, “Copeland was an enormous success, a classic rags-to riches story, a guy who simply wouldn’t quit.”
He was born in 1944, and raised in New Orleans, LA. When he was a young boy, his family lived in the St. Thomas Housing Development. Al took a job at the lunch counter at a Schwegmann Supermarket. One of his co-workers, a boy about the same age, worked harder than everybody else. When Al asked him why, the boy replied, “I’m the best, I’m better than you and everybody else and nobody can beat me.” The words were a challenge to young Al Copeland, who knuckled down and soon was outperforming his rival.
Al approached his last challenge in life, cancer, 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.”
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.
Al is most famous for founding Popeyes Famous Fried Chicken and developing its well-known and loved recipe (still a closely guarded secret). He went on to found Copeland’s of New Orleans, Diversified Food and Seasonings and more. 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 Christmas decorations at his Metairie, LA home. The extravaganza was a result of a childhood promise to himself that he would one day give to other children the holiday joy he felt when he stood outside the Centanni home on Canal Street. Weeks were required to install the miles of light strings that decorated his home. Airline Drive passengers got a bird’s eye view of the spectacular display that attracted thousands during the holiday season. 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. Striving for excellence was simply a part of Al Copeland’s nature. Everything had to be the best, and he had to be the best at everything. This spirit of healthy competition was expressed in all aspects of his life, so it was not surprising that friendly Sunday races on Lake Pontchartrain grew into the world-famous Popeyes Offshore Racing Team. He was known worldwide for his activities in the sport. Driving his boats to unprecedented fame in racing history, he brought fun and show business to the sport. In a decade of racing, the Popeyes team, with Al as the driver, set world speed records and achieved the American Powerboat racing Association US #1 title six times competing, including an unprecedented five consecutive years, 1983-1988, for an unmatched record as the winningest team in offshore racing history. In his quest for the best, he created a new class of competition with the 50-foot Popeyes Superboat and established a new threshold of technology with his 35-foot boat that introduced space age materials and aeronautical safety systems to powerboat racing. He won the internationally prestigious Harmsworth Trophy, the coveted World Championship. 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 set goals and worked hard to achieve them. Competition only encouraged him to do more, better. He received honors and awards such as Restaurateur of the Year; Multi-Unit Food Service Organization (MUFSO) Golden Chain; Marketer of the Year; International Franchise Association Entrepreneur of the Year; Young Leadership Council Role Model of the Year; he was named to the Louisiana’s Restaurant Association Hall of Fame. For his many contributions to civic and charitable organizations, he was named Humanitarian of the Year and received the Americanism Award of the American Legion. 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 Popeyes Lifetime Achievement Award.
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. He was diagnosed with Merkel Cell Carcinoma shortly before Thanksgiving in 2007 and passed away Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008 outside of Munich, Germany at age 64.
“It’s impossible not to admire the guy, what he did, how he did it and who he made himself to be. That song “My Way”? Yeah, that was his song. Except he was no Sinatra. He was our Elvis. The Chicken King has left the building.” said Chris Rose, a New York Times Best-Selling New Orleans, Louisiana, writer and journalist.
Al Copeland inspired a great number of people and touched many lives. We hope to continue his legacy, ambition, and determination to Change the Course of Cancer!