As often happens with a favored son, New Orleans looked on with pride as Al Copeland’s legacy grew from its humble beginning to national acclaim. Known as a hard-working, passionate person who lived larger than life, Al lost his battle with cancer in spring 2008. One year after his father’s death, we sat down to talk with Al Copeland Jr.
“Let’s meet for lunch,” Al Jr. offers, when asked for an interview. He arrives impeccably dressed in a dark suit, looking every bit a CEO. For all the legends that surround him and his family, he is remarkably friendly and down-to-earth. His conversation, sincere and forthright, flows easily, revealing two passions: his business and his family.
Al Jr.’s business is the group of companies started by his father that controls, among other ventures, the Copeland’s and Popeyes’ brands and some of their locations and the spice company that supplies proprietary seasonings to both. His family includes Liz, his wife of 25 years, and their five daughters; eight brothers and sisters; and scores of kin. Many, but not all, are involved in various aspects of the food-service business.
“Copeland’s was the first casual dining restaurant chain with a sauté station,” he declares, with obvious pride. Adding a dash of “George Rhode worked with Al Copeland to create our chef-crafted recipes,” and a spoonful of “We use proprietary seasoning to assure consistent flavor,” he shares the history of his eponymous restaurant. Like a seasoned Copeland’s chef, he does so with spice and a reverent nod to New Orleans cuisine.
When Copeland says he’s been in the family business all his life, he literally means all his life. At age 12, he worked after school and during summers in the spice plant on Airline Highway. At 14, he moved to Popeyes Fried Chicken—orders, food prep, batter, biscuits, cash register, 3rd-2nd- and 1st-assistant manager and finally, at age 18, manager. “I wasn’t given the job of manager of Popeyes; I earned the right from my peers to be manager,” he clarifies, leading into the Copeland’s “career development system.”
Al Copeland built his business from the ground up. He valued the same training ground for his son and every other person in his employ. “I’d always ask the person I reported to, ‘What’s next?’” says Al Jr. “Every time I got a promotion, I’d go tell my dad, and he’d be totally surprised. He knew I earned it on my own.”
Al Jr. worked his way up to director of concepts development, a position he held until his promotion to senior vice president in 1992 and CEO in 2003. “My dad was a great-idea man. He’d say what he wanted, and we’d start it. Then we’d refine it as another idea came up. I learned how to implement and deal with his great ideas. I was his right-hand man.”
When asked how it is to step out from the shadow of his father, Al Jr. replies, “It helps to have worked with him as long as I did. My dad had great confidence in me.”
Al Jr.’s style is a blend of creativity and strategic thinking. “As a way to celebrateour 25 years of local support, we’ve taken 14 items from our original Copeland’s menu and rolled back prices to 1983. And we’re reaching out in new directions, focusing on catering, banquet rooms and corporate relationships.” He is redecorating the restaurants to reflect a more authentic New Orleans look, and each location now features a photo tribute to his late father.
Fulfilling a Legacy
On the Thanksgiving before he died, Al Copeland shared with family members two goals that he wanted to accomplish. The first was to find a cure for Merkel cell carcinoma, the rare malignant salivary gland cancer he was battling. His second goal was to break the world’s competitive speedboat record. The declaration was quintessential Al Copeland. By Easter of the following year, however, he had succumbed to the disease, leaving the dreams to live on in the heart of his eldest son.
As chairman for the Al Copeland Foundation—Charli Womac, his sister, serves as president—Al Jr. adamantly declares he will fund research until a cure is found for Merkel cell carcinoma. Fundraisers such as Heaven on Earth, featuring his dad’s well-known Christmas light display; the April Fool’s Golf Classic; the Big Bash preceding the Al Copeland offshore powerboat races in August; and the Chris Paul-Al Copeland wristband promotion all work to that end, with the Copeland family matching proceeds earned by Heaven on Earth and the Big Bash.
The second goal, breaking the world’s competitive speedboat record, poses a challenge of a different sort. Working with designers and engineers, Al Jr. plans to build a boat that will attain 240 mph in a sanctioned one-mile run, going one mile in fewer than 10 seconds! He plans to be on the boat and at the controls when the historic run takes place, something his wife, “is not okay with,” he confesses.
Upon his father’s death, Al Jr., became steward to both his father’s goals and his legacy. “For the first time in my life, I am safeguarding money I didn’t earn,” he says. “He earned it and gave it to us [his nine children].” With five siblings under 11 years of age, Al Jr. is mindful of the responsibility he has accepted. “It drives me to do what is in their best interests.”
Likewise, Al Jr. also does what’s in the best interest of his daughters— Allison, Ashley, Alexandria (Cookie), Ariel and Alyssa—when it comes to work. Taking a page from his own experience, he encourages them to work in the office and restaurants at an early age. By doing so, they earn their own spending money and learn the value of work.
Conversation goes from the past to the present as Al Jr. happily shares news about an upcoming addition to the Copeland family. “I’m excited, because Allison is due on 9/9/09 with our first grandchild,” he says, smiling ear-to-ear. “I’m not going to be called ‘grandpa’ or ‘paw-paw,’ although it could change when I see the baby. Right now, I’m thinking about being ‘A.C.’ and Liz will be ‘LiLi.’”
When asked her thoughts on her dad being called A.C., Allison laughs and says, “That doesn’t surprise me. You’ve got to remember we called our grandfather ‘Big Al.’”
Not only is Al Jr. delighted that Allison is presenting them with their first grandchild, he also is thrilled to have Allison as human resources manager for the corporation. “I couldn’t have found a better person if I searched the nation,” he declares, fatherly pride notwithstanding.
Allison glows when talking about her father. “He is so great! My dad is a leader, not a manager. He works hard, and the people who work for him work hard. He holds them accountable as if it were their own business.”
Shedding light on her father’s devotion to family, Allison shares, “My grandfather was a night owl. He would hold meetings with my dad at one of the restaurants until two or three in the morning. Even though he’d get in so late, my dad woke up and fixed breakfast for all five of us girls every morning, even when I was in high school. We each got to place our order with him, and we all ordered something different,” she says with a laugh. “His specialty was scrambled eggs—the best! He’d put them in a biscuit.”
Although her father worked long hours while his daughters were growing up, Allison says, “We got our dad in the mornings and on Sundays. He took the time to make us feel important. We’re all Daddy’s girls.” To this day, all five daughters get together on Sunday, “family day,” for breakfast with their parents.
So what does Al Copeland Jr., father and entrepreneur, do for fun? Food—“I love to boil crawfish and deep fry for lots of people”—and fitness. He and Liz jog or walk four miles every-other day, and he’s working out with Mackie Shilstone.
Good strategy. With his new role as “A.C.” on the horizon, something tells me Al Copeland Jr.’s going to need all the energy he can get.
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