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New Popeyes chicken sandwich draws a crowd

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                                The front of the line at Popeyes this morning,


    The front of the line at Popeyes this morning,

Anthony Hardaway sits in his Mazda Miata, listening to classical music at 9:20 a.m. Sunday.

“It’s calming,” says the Manoa area resident from Gulfport, Louisiana.

“I’m surprised no one else is here yet,” he adds.

On cue another car pulls up, and its driver moves a cone blocking the Popeyes parking lot entrance on Kapahulu Avenue. He gets back into his car and pulls up to the drive-through speaker box.

“I didn’t think of moving the cone,” Hardaway says, slightly irritated.

He has been parked next to the two cones for 25 minutes.

Sutah Chirayunon, the driver of the other car, then gets out of his vehicle and walks toward Hardaway, who is still seated in his car. Chirayunon apologizes, saying he has his neighbor’s kids with him, and he’s just going to get two sandwiches, for them.

The men wait the remaining half hour to get their Popeyes chicken sandwiches without incident. In fact, Hardaway says he will patronize a donut truck Chirayunon plans to open.

This could have escalated. Hardaway was clearly there first, but was he actually “in line?” Chirayunon knew why Hardaway was there, and could have pulled in behind him.

But neither man was there early with the goal of being first; they just didn’t want to have to wait for hours to get the new Popeyes chicken sandwich, a national craze making its official Hawaii debut today.

That was Kailee Chun’s objective, too. At about 9:35, the University of Hawaii student from Kaimuki who learned of the sandwich on Twitter, was dropped off at the store. She was first in the walk-in line for the restaurant that was scheduled to open at 10.

Less than 30 minutes later, Chun started walking home with a bag full of 11 sandwiches.

“It’s all for me,” she said, laughing. “Of course not, I’m just joking.”

Meanwhile Hardaway, digs into the first of the two sandwiches he bought, receiving them from Popeyes employee Trey Loyola five minute after making his order.

This was a treat for him not just because of the hype behind the new item; Hardaway has been on a strict vegan diet for two weeks, and this would be his first “cheat” meal.

Also, he knows all about Cajun-style food. Gulfport is about a one-hour drive from New Orleans.

With the first bite, he begins to slowly nod his head in approval.

“It’s pretty decent,” Hardaway says. “The bread is definitely a plus. The sauce is spicy, but not too spicy. Juicy chicken, and the batter is the typical Popeyes batter, which is good.”

Hardaway — who first learned of the sandwich’s upcoming availability in Hawaii on Instagram — says it was worth the long wait, and also some confusion caused by what Popeyes Hawaii president Sean Uezu called a “sneak-peak” at some locations on Friday.

“I was a little pissed off because no one answered the phone,” said Hardaway, who says he called all six Popeyes locations on Friday and yesterday trying to confirm which locations were selling the sandwiches and which were not, and when.

The early rollout at some locations was partly to “reward” Popeyes’ followers on social media, Uezu says. He adds that the company does want to be fair to all customers, and “best practices” is a work in progress.

Of the Kapahulu store in particular, “We love this neighborhood and this neighborhood loves us,” Uezu says.

At 10:20 a.m., all of the tables in the restaurant are full, and about 15 people stand patiently waiting for their orders. “My wife says I’m crazy,” says Rick Ching of Kaimuki.

There’s a line of about 10 people outside the store, and another of around 25 cars on Kapahulu Avenue in front of the Jack-In-The-Box next door, and then up two blocks on Mooheau Avenue. At 10:40, an irritated driver on Kapahulu continually hits his horn until he finds a way to get past the line and continue westbound on Kapahulu.

Uezu spent Friday and Sunday monitoring how things were going at the various Popeyes locations, as he normally does. He says there have been a few minor incidents because of long waits for the new sandwich.

“Mostly at the drive-throughs. Unfortunately we have road rage, even in Hawaii. Sometimes someone thinks they can cut in line, and you can’t blame someone who’s already been waiting for an hour to be upset about that,” Uezu says.

“Hopefully everyone will remember we’re in the state of aloha, and we’ll do our bet to get everyone their sandwich as quickly as possible,” he adds.

On Sunday morning in Kapahulu, the customers are still smiling, even as the waiting time for the sandwiches lengthens.

Miriam Healy of Palolo and her daughter and son-in-law, Kailua residents Moon and Nathaniel Elliiott, arrive at 9:30 by Uber.

“The driver said this was a new one for him, driving people to Popeyes,” Healy says.

Nathaniel Elliott is from North Carolina, and he says he likes the Popeyes sandwich better than those from Chick-fil-A and Bojangles, but that his favorite is still the one from a southeast regional chain called Zaxby’s.

Two weeks ago, a customer stabbed another one to death in what was reported as a dispute over the new sandwich at a Popeyes in Maryland.

“I wanted to see what the hype was about,” Healy says, after eating her first Popeyes chicken sandwich. “It’s really good. But it’s not shanking-good.”

UPDATE: At around 4:15 p.m. Sunday, waits for the sandwich at the Kapahulu locations ranged from 30 to 45 minutes for walk-in customers. The drive-through line was 10 cars, extending to the corner of Kapahulu Avenue and Mooheau Avenue.

“I know it’s a little crazy out there. … Just so you know, this is not a one-day thing. We’re going to be doing this for as long as we can,” Uezu said in a message to customers, suggesting that if they don’t want to wait in today’s long lines they can try the sandwich on another day.

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