The Ultimate Guide To Popeyes’ Flounder Fish Sandwich
When Popeyes introduced the Flounder Fish Sandwich, it was the latest in a series of bold steps for the emerging fast food giant. The eatery had already emerged as the biggest winner of the "Chicken Sandwich Wars," which helped spur a jump in systemwide sales from $3.7 billion in 2018 to $5.1 billion in 2020 — a climb of more than 60% in just two years (via QSR). Then, on February 11, 2021, Popeyes lifted the curtain on act two with a Cajun-style flounder sandwich (via RestaurantNews.com).
The limited run in 2021 was followed by an encore performance in 2022 (via QSRweb.com). And as we await a potential part three, we wanted to look closer at this take on fast food fish. The fish sandwich has long been at least a minor player in the fast food landscape, given the influence of the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish (via Smithsonian Magazine). But with QSR noting that seafood has become a serious player in fast-casual dining, it’s moving towards a starring role. And in a 2022 report by Techmonic (via Restaurant Business), Popeyes was ranked the 15th-highest-grossing restaurant chain in the U.S., so it’s doing something right. In anticipation of a possible return, we’ve put together the ultimate Popeyes Flounder Fish Sandwich guide both for its die-hard fans and those just hearing about it for the first time.
It was the first Popeyes filet-style fish sandwich
It’s no secret that Popeyes is first and foremost a chicken restaurant. When Alvin C. Copeland Sr. opened what came to be known as Popeyes in 1972, the original name was Chicken on the Run. And in case it still wasn’t clear what the restaurant sold, in 1980, Popeyes began using the "Love That Chicken" tagline.
So it was a big deal when Popeyes rolled out the Flounder Fish Sandwich. In fact, according to Forbes, it was the company’s first-ever filet-style seafood sandwich — almost a half-century after the fast food chain began doing business. That’s less surprising when you consider fish has never gotten close to the fast food sales numbers of burgers and chicken. Still, it’s a long time to go before getting on that particular train.
That being said, the Flounder Fish Sandwich was not the chain’s first seafood offering. Popeyes rolled out crawfish in 1989 and has sold deep-fried shrimp for many years. Popeyes locations in Singapore serve breaded Cajun fish fingers and calamari rings. And based on information from MyFoodDiary, Popeyes at one point sold a Cajun Fish Po Boy, which is fish tenders in a roll. So think of the Flounder Fish Sandwich as the next chapter in this story rather than the first. If it ultimately is anywhere near as successful as the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich — which, according to Restaurant Business, spurred the industry’s best quarterly same-store sales numbers ever — it could be a very fruitful chapter.
Popeyes was late to the fish sandwich game
In the original Flounder Fish Sandwich announcement, as published on RestaurantNews.com, Popeyes said it aimed to "reset industry standards" on what a fish sandwich can be. And suffice it to say, those standards had been in place for a long time. The original fast food fish sandwich was the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish, which was created in 1962 and then rolled out nationally in 1965. A 2016 USA Today article claims 300 million Filet-O-Fish sandwiches are sold every year, giving Popeyes quite the giant to try to topple.
But plenty of other fast food restaurants have taken on the Filet-O-Fish before Popeyes. Burger King has also offered filet-style fish sandwiches for decades. Although the exact details are hazy, Retroist claims the Whaler began appearing at BK franchises in the 1960s and had become a national menu item by the mid-1970s — the Schenectady Gazette was advertising it in March 1971. Arby’s introduced the Crispy Fish Sandwich in 2001, and it has become a seasonal menu choice (via USA Today). And in an article published in 2019, NJ.com reviewed a staggering 18 fast food fish sandwiches — including Popeyes’ original attempts at fish on a bun.
Popeyes wasn’t even the first chain to have a Cajun-style fish sandwich — QSRweb.com says the Arby’s version goes back to at least 2008. With so much catching up to do, it might take a lot to make people think of Popeyes when they want fish.
It was introduced during the Chicken Sandwich Wars
Popeyes trying to upend the fast food fish market isn’t a shocker when you consider the fact that the chain had just earned a reputation as a quick-service disruptor. As Insider talked about during the inaugural Flounder Fish Sandwich rollout, Popeyes was still flush with success from the Chicken Sandwich Wars it helped start. As recounted by Restaurant Business, it all began on August 12, 2019, when Popeyes introduced a fried chicken sandwich that led to some social media back-and-forth with Chick-fil-A. The end result was demand so high that many Popeyes locations were running out of the sandwiches only a week later. Same-store sales also increased 38% in the final quarter of 2019.
So it’s completely understandable that Popeyes decided to try and replicate that success in the fish realm. According to RestaurantNews.com, Popeyes even acknowledged in the original announcement that the customer love for the chain’s chicken sandwich played a role in creating a fish version. We couldn’t find any reports of the Flounder Fish Sandwich selling out, so we’re assuming Popeyes learned from the chicken sandwich craze and had plenty of ingredients on hand.
Perhaps most interestingly, the Chicken Sandwich Wars weren’t actually over when the Flounder Fish Sandwich came out. In the same month as its release, McDonald’s released three new chicken sandwiches. Perhaps Popeyes felt so secure in the chicken sandwich market that it believed it could mount a fish offensive at the same time.
It’s the latest salvo in the burgeoning Fish Sandwich War
When the Flounder Fish Sandwich first launched in February 2021, Yahoo! openly wondered if Popeyes was trying to set up another sandwich conflict, and 97ZOK went as far as to name Popeyes the winner of the Fish Sandwich War "before it even started." But seafood fans who had been paying attention knew the initial battles had already been fought. USA Today declared the beginning of the Fish Sandwich War in February 2020 when Arby’s started publicly taking shots at the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish in its advertising. This continued in 2022, with USA Today describing how rapper Pusha T took shots at the Golden Arches in the name of promoting the Arby’s Spicy Fish Sandwich.
In between, new fast food fish sandwiches were popping up left and right. A week after the Popeyes reveal, Inspire Brands announced that Buffalo Wild Wings and Sonic would join their cousin restaurant Arby’s in serving limited-release fish sandwiches. Just a couple of months after the Flounder Fish Sandwich came out, Red Lobster announced a new fried fish sandwich called the Codzilla (via SeafoodSource). So while Popeyes may not have been an initial combatant in this food war, the chain still arrived relatively early to the party.
The initial release came during a boon for fish sales
It’s a time-tested rule of thumb in food — if people are craving something, give them what they want. And when the Popeyes Flounder Fish Sandwich came out, America was craving seafood. Just two days after RestaurantNews.com published the Popeyes press release about the new sandwich, Winsight Grocery Business wrote that fresh, frozen, and shelf-stable seafood sales all rose by at least 20.3% in 2020. At the time, the outlet attributed part of that growth to people not being able to eat out during the pandemic. But SeafoodSource reported that fresh and frozen seafood sales continued to climb in 2021, with each surpassing $7 billion in sales per IRI and 210 Analytics.
There were several factors in this surge, including product innovations by the seafood industry and the Eat Seafood America! ad drive whose return on investment was purportedly a whopping 800%. But the bottom line is that in early 2021, customers were looking for more ways to get seafood in their bellies. In such a context, it makes sense that Popeyes chose this time to start selling the Flounder Fish Sandwich. People were crying out for seafood, and Popeyes was there to capitalize — at least for part of the year.
Each release was timed with Lent
Of course, like many quick-service fish offerings, the first two runs of the Flounder Fish Sandwich were for a limited time — and there’s a reason for that. Per RestaurantNews.com, the initial run began on February 11, 2021, which was six days before the start of Lent, per CalendarDate.com. Meanwhile, the second run began eight days before Lent on February 22, 2022 (via TheStreet). During Lent, the BBC says that Catholic adults are asked to abstain from consuming meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all other Fridays. However, meat in this case is defined as coming from a warm-blooded animal; fish are not warm-blooded, so eating them is acceptable on those days.
As such, seafood is in demand during the late winter and early spring. Restaurant Hospitality cites a report from Datassential claiming that seafood sales rise 20% during Lent. And in 2016, McDonald’s — one of the fast food restaurants that peddles fish year-round — said the Lenten season accounted for 25% of Filet-O-Fish sales. Fish is so important during Lent that publications such as Cincinnati’s Catholic Telegraph publish fish fry guides of where people can indulge.
So even with all this talk about sandwich wars and rising seafood sales, the simplest explanation for why the Flounder Fish Sandwich came into existence might be the best one. And based on this history, any future announcements about the sandwich’s return would likely be in the lead-up to Lent.
It’s a relatively simple sandwich
So far, we haven’t even talked about what’s in the Popeyes Flounder Fish Sandwich. But on the surface, it’s a relatively straightforward composition. The Arizona Republic says there are only four basic ingredients: the breaded fish filet, a brioche bun, barrel-cured pickles, and tartar sauce. Wichita by EB adds that the batter has notes of cayenne and black pepper which give it some delicate spiciness.
And that’s it. There’s no cheese like on the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish and no smothering of lettuce like the Burger King Big Fish and Arby’s Crispy Fish. And what if you’re looking for something like the Chick-fil-A Deluxe Fish Sandwich, which is basically a fish burger with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles? Not at Popeyes.
Aside from the meat, the Flounder Fish Sandwich is actually very similar in concept to the famous Popeyes Chicken Sandwich. RestaurantNews.com quotes the company as saying it even uses the same type of bun and pickles. The biggest differences are that the chicken sandwich has mayonnaise instead of tartar sauce, per Fast Food Nutrition, and the fish sandwich’s breading is thin and smooth rather than heavy and crusty. So if you’re looking for a seafood version of the chicken sandwich you love, this is for you. Perhaps this simplicity is part of why, according to Wichita by EB, it’s one of the few fast food items that looks like it does in ads.
The second launch added a second flavor
Even if a sandwich is simple, that doesn’t mean you can’t add some variety. Popeyes chose to start small with the initial 2021 launch, with QSR noting the main Cajun-style Flounder Fish Sandwich was the only choice. But for the 2022 limited run, the offerings were doubled with both Classic and Spicy sandwiches, like the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich comes in. The Dallas Observer found the only divergence between them is the sauce. Although the Classic used tartar sauce, the Spicy is topped with an orange sauce that has some extra kick.
You might be thinking, "Wait — isn’t all Cajun food spicy?" Not necessarily. On the contrary, Louisiana-based restaurant Pat’s of Henderson says this is one of the myths surrounding Cajun cuisine. Although some Cajun food is most assuredly spicy, the main characteristics are that it’s rich, flavorful, and well-seasoned.
So whether you prefer mild or spicy Cajun seafood, the Flounder Fish Sandwich can satisfy both tastes when it’s available. It also opens the door for future new iterations like Arby’s has done with the Crispy Fish, Cajun Fish, and King’s Hawaiian Fish Deluxe to please different palettes.
Its use of flounder is unlike most other fish sandwiches
Even in an increasingly crowded fish sandwich market, there is one thing that sets Popeyes apart: the choice of fish. The original press release stressed that the Flounder Fish Sandwich is made from real flounder from the Pacific Ocean (via RestaurantNews.com).
Choosing flounder is a sure way for Popeyes to stand out from the pack. Alaskan pollock is the main fish sandwich meat, with McDonald’s, Burger King, Arby’s, and Wendy’s all using it for their filets. Pacific cod is also popular, with Chick-fil-A and Steak N’ Shake confirmed as using it. HealthPartners reminds us that the taste and texture of different fish species can vary greatly, so knowing which one is between the bun gives you a better idea of the eating experience you’re in for.
Granted, we don’t know exactly which flounder is preferred by Popeyes. AZ Animals says there are roughly 240 species of this flatfish around the world, most of which live in saltwater. The claim that the flounder are caught in the Pacific narrows it down some, though, with SeafoodSource citing petrale sole and Pacific Dover as common food species from this body of water.
It’s quite the hefty meal
Some people gravitate toward fish, whether at home or eating out, for its many health benefits. Nourish by WebMD notes that fish is loaded with helpful vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and other nutrients that can make it more desirable than red meat.
But while the Flounder Fish Sandwich may well have these nutrients, it’s not necessarily a health food. According to Popeyes, a Classic Flounder Sandwich has 813 calories. By comparison, the Burger King Big Fish has 560 calories, and the McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish has 390 calories. In other words, the Flounder Fish Sandwich is more than twice as much food as the Filet-O-Fish. The Popeyes sandwich also has 51 grams of fat — two thirds of the daily recommended amount for an adult based on updated FDA dietary guidelines — plus 11 grams of saturated fat. For a medium meal with Cajun fries and sweet tea, you’re looking at a total of 1,166 calories and 65 grams of fat.
Interestingly, if you can handle the added punch, the Spicy Flounder Fish Sandwich would be less filling. According to data from Fast Food Nutrition, the spicy edition has 672 calories and 36 grams of fat, both of which are significantly less than the original. Regardless, this fish sandwich may not be the most health-conscious choice.
Popeyes offered Sandwich Insurance during the initial launch
We’re pretty sure everyone has experienced the horror of biting into something they ordered, discovering they hate it, and then having to decide whether to spend more money on a new order or just go hungry. Well, Popeyes offered a solution to this for the Flounder Fish Sandwich. On the February 11, 2021, launch day, customers ordering the new dish could buy "Sandwich Insurance" for 15 cents on top of the $4.49 retail price (via RestaurantNews.com). If they got the insurance and didn’t like the Flounder Fish Sandwich, Popeyes would replace it with a Classic Chicken Sandwich.
Although this promotion lasted only one day, it was a novel approach by Popeyes to show it was serious about offering a good product, and it may well have influenced a fish sandwich rivalry. Less than three weeks after the Sandwich Insurance stunt, Arby’s announced the "Fish Sandwich Do-Over," where the chain gave away thousands of checks for $3.79 to make up for any past bad experiences with a "square-shaped fish sandwich" (via Inspire Brands). And Popeyes wasn’t done with fish-related offers, either — in 2022, it used the Flounder Fish Sandwich to promote its Rewards club, giving members 150 bonus points every time they bought it (via QSR).
It’s proven to be a critical favorite
For all the seasonal tie-ins, recipe crafting, and special offers, the only way a food item stays on the menu is if people like it. And in the case of the Flounder Fish Sandwich, it appears to be a hit for the taste buds. Notably, in February 2021, Newsday food critic Scott Vogel compared fish sandwich offerings from half a dozen major fast food restaurants. He gave the Popeyes offering a rave review, calling it "the rare fish sandwich that actually tastes like something" and even going so far as to declare it more impressive than the chain’s chicken sandwich.
Other foodies have shared in this admiration. In the Know’s Katie Mather said she fell in love after the first bite and declared that other fast food eateries would have to up their game to compete. And the Arizona Republic called the sandwich a home run, noting, among other things, that it looked tasty out of the package.
It should be acknowledged the praise isn’t unanimous. In 2022, the Dallas Observer noted the Spicy Flounder Fish Sandwich didn’t quite live up to its potential, and The Impulsive Buy only gave the original a 7 out of 10 the previous year. Still, how many fish sandwiches have spurred customers to literally sing their praises? The positive response is the best sign that we haven’t seen the last of Popeyes’ Flounder Fish Sandwich.