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Popeyes customers wait in line to order chicken sandwiches on August 22, 2019, in Kyle, Texas. | Eric Gay/AP Photo

“We’re busting our butts and breaking our backs.”

The line twisted around tables inside the restaurant, crowding seated customers who were trying to eat the Sandwich. Yes, that sandwich.

The Popeyes restaurant on 14th Street in Washington, DC, was so packed late on a Tuesday afternoon that it was impossible to see the cashiers or cooks behind the counter.

“At lunchtime, the line was out the door,” an older woman who was panhandling outside the restaurant told me.

The craze over Popeyes’ new chicken sandwich — a fried chicken breast on brioche with pickles and either spicy or plain mayo — has prompted memes, hashtags, and endless selfies on social media since it launched last week. And lines. Long lines. By Tuesday, the company said it had run out of sandwiches.

“I’m exhausted,” said one cashier at the DC Popeyes on Wednesday. “We all are.”

The chicken sandwich, which takes about 10 minutes to make, is just the latest food item to go viral. Back in October 2017, customers yelled at McDonald’s staff when restaurants ran out of a limited supply of Szechuan sauce. A month later, hungry customers in Los Angeles waited up to an hour to get their hands on a Cronut. Every fall, Starbucks baristas have to deal with the dreaded pumpkin spice latte drinkers.

It’s all fun, right? Well, not for employees. They can’t take breaks. Food items run out. Customers freak out. And workers deal with it all while earning unlivable wages.

Wanda Lavender, a 38-year-old Popeyes manager, told me she doesn’t get paid enough to deal with all the customers who lined up for sandwiches this past week. She earns $10 an hour managing a Popeyes in Milwaukee. She told me her legs are still numb from standing for 10 to 12 hours a day — she had to spend her birthday making chicken sandwiches instead of taking the day off. One of her employees quit. An angry customer even threatened to shoot her staff.

“It was out of control,” she said Wednesday before her shift. Restaurant Brands International, which owns the Popeyes chain, did not respond to a request for comment as of publication time.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Lavender.

Alexia Fernández Campbell

Were you expecting the sandwich to be so popular?

Wanda Lavender

I had no idea it was going to be that serious. They already had the sandwich in Chicago and it wasn’t a big deal. It’s just a sandwich; there is nothing special about it. Bread, meat, pickles, and mayo.

Alexia Fernández Campbell

What was it like that first day the sandwich went on sale?

Wanda Lavender

I went in thinking it was going to be a normal day. I got my Red Bull and went to work. I sat and watched someone make the sandwich so I could learn to make it. Then there were lines and lines outside the door. It’s almost like people were lining up to go to recess. Every day the lines just got longer; there was no break for anyone. I stood for 10 hours straight.

My legs were numb. I was getting [leg cramps] in the middle of the night. It’s exhausting work. My legs still haven’t recovered.

Alexia Fernández Campbell

What about your staff, how did they handle it?

Wanda Lavender

It was all hands on deck. There was no stopping. Sometimes employees stayed longer because it was so overwhelming for the person working next to them.

It wasn’t just one person exhausted — everyone was exhausted. At first we were like, “C’mon, let’s do this. We’ve got this.” But the lines never cleared. All you could do was bow your head and take a deep breath. One lady quit; she couldn’t do it. It was too much. It’s overwhelming.

Alexia Fernández Campbell

How hard is it to make the sandwich?

Wanda Lavender

It takes about 10 minutes. Thirty seconds to toast the bread, and I think about seven minutes to cook the chicken. Then the mayo and pickles. I’ve made over 300 [sandwiches].

Alexia Fernández Campbell

How did the customers behave?

Wanda Lavender

We had a lot of good customers, but every now and then, we had one that made me want to reconsider working there. When we had the sandwich in stock, it was fine. It was when we ran out that people got angry.

People gotta understand that we’re going to run out of things. One guy yelled because we ran out of honey sauce. It was out of control. Another guy threatened to come back and shoot up the store.

It just doesn’t make sense. We are busting our butts and breaking our backs and someone threatens to shoot us because we ran out of something. That doesn’t scare me, but imagine what that’s like for an 18-year-old kid who works here? It scares the life out of them. It’s a hard pill to swallow. And all over some sandwich.

Alexia Fernández Campbell

Do you feel like the company that owns Popeyes appreciates your hard work?

Wanda Lavender

The corporation made all this money — millions — off of these sandwiches, but where’s our cut? Where is our appreciation? Where is our thank-you? We made 5,000 sandwiches just in Wisconsin and sold every single one of them.

Alexia Fernández Campbell

Do you think the sandwiches will come back on the menu?

Wanda Lavender

I don’t know. It’s still undetermined. It needs to be handled differently. Maybe put a limit. I had one person come in to purchase 15 sandwiches.

Alexia Fernández Campbell

Is it worth putting up with all this for $10 an hour?

Wanda Lavender

Well, I’m not doing this just for kicks. I have six kids and I love every single one of them. If I work 10 hours a day, we’re just okay, but we’re not financially stable. It shouldn’t have to be this way.

I’m not lazy. I have done every job you can imagine. I was a loan officer, a lead generator, a research specialist, a day care teacher, but I’ve never been able to make more than $10 an hour. No one in my family has been able to.

I can pay the rent and the energy bill and the cellphone. That’s it. There’s no way to make sure the kids have everything they need, or even to dress halfway decent. Sometimes I braid hair to make extra money.

Alexia Fernández Campbell

So one more question. Have you tried the sandwich yet? What’s it like?

Wanda Lavender

It’s just a sandwich. I am just going to be honest, I feel like it could use some lettuce, tomato, and some cheese. To each their own.

Alexia Fernández Campbell

Is there anything else you want to say?

Wanda Lavender

To all these corporations out there: Give us our due. Make sure you take care of the families who are taking care of you.

Author: Alexia Fernández Campbell

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