Would Popeyes' chicken sandwich be better under socialism?

Perhaps you’ve heard by now that Popeyes’ new chicken sandwich is all the rage and is creating long lines around the country. This week, socialist magazine Jacobin published a piece arguing that as good as the new chicken sandwich is, it would be even better under socialism.

Vice says that Popeyes’ new chef-d’oeuvre “ascends into a new level of gastronomic achievement that is both a culinary and scientific feat.” The Los Angeles Times claims the fast food delicacy now serves as an “economic indicator” of the country’s fiscal health. The New Yorker suggests the sandwich could “save America.”…

Yet in the face of all this excitement stands a brutal reality: the profiteers of the Popeyes chicken sandwich craze are the bosses, while the workers bear the brunt. With orders exploding at locations nationwide, Popeyes’ employees are working harder under more grueling conditions and few benefits while corporate shareholders bask Scrooge McDuck–style in their riches…

One immediate way to curb this racket would be to increase the minimum wage to $20 an hour. With a full 20 percent of frontline fast food workers living below the poverty line, and many relying on food stamps and other benefits just to survive, raising the wage floor would deliver desperately needed relief to countless workers. While the company’s CEO Cheryl Bachelder recently defended its low wages on Fox Business by claiming the priority is to “grow top-line sales” and that an increase in employee pay would “raise prices for guests and lower hours for employees,” we know Popeyes won’t simply pass on the profit surge to its workers — the company will simply hoard that new wealth for executives like Bachelder…

This sandwich may have been created under capitalism — but under socialism, who knows where the frontiers of snack creation may lie?

Well, I know where the frontiers lie.

Popeyes’ chicken sandwich is undeniably a hit at $3.99 but with the people serving it making $20 an hour prices would have to go up. How popular will the sandwich be at $6.99? Granted, since the minimum wage will have presumably gone up everywhere, the Popeyes crowd won’t be able to drive to Chick fil a for a cheaper option. But when all fast food becomes an expensive night out, people will stop going as often and the long lines at Popeyes won’t be so long anymore. Suddenly, instead of sharing the chicken sandwich wealth, managers are thinking about who they can lay off.

Fast-food jobs are designed to require little skill making workers easily replaceable. That means there is always a huge pool of labor available to do these jobs. In fact, some of what the workers do is so routine it can probably be done just as well by machines.

What has already started to happen in the fast-food industry is that rising costs are driving big chains to automate more of the process. We’ve already seen that trend at several big chains with automated ordering kiosks and online ordering. Partly that’s to avoid the cost of rising wages but it’s also because ordering via phone apps increasingly seems to be what people want. In fact, there is evidence automated ordering does a better job selling food than people.

Restaurants are pressured by rising costs and the ability to pass that on to consumers. The average cost of a restaurant meal increased 2.4% in the last 12 months, according to NPD data, more than the rate of inflation and cost of a grocery basket, and the rising cost puts pressure on restaurant operators. “The economics dictate you can only pay so much and today’s labor market makes it even harder to staff restaurants.”…

“In China they’re way ahead of us in automation in the back of the house and front of house,” Portalatin said, referring to the food industry terms for kitchen and customer-facing positions.

Portalatin said there has been a dramatic increase in digital ordering, especially consumers placing orders from mobile phones. Total customer traffic has been flat over the past year, but there has been “a monumental shift” to digital ordering, and NPD Group expects digital orders to increase 23% a year over the next half-decade. Restaurants have an economic incentive to make sure this shift continues to accelerate. Average ticket size from a digital order is higher than a traditional order, which NPD Group attributes, at least in part, to the ability of an app or kiosk to upsell customers and “suggestively sell” based on data collected through digital order histories.

If it comes down to a choice between a $6.99 Popeyes chicken sandwich you order from a real person or the same sandwich ordered by phone or kiosk for $3.99, guess which one is going to be more popular? What the $20 an hour minimum wage Jacobin proposes will actually do is accelerate the process of automating these jobs and wind up putting a lot of people out of work.