HILL AIR FORCE BASE — It turns out the military has an unusual recruiting tool on base, and that tool — is chicken.
Not just any chicken — spicy Cajun chicken and other Cajun favorites like crawfish etoufee, jambalaya and red beans with rice at the Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits restaurant inside the base's west gate.
It wouldn't be a big deal, but it's the only Popeye's in all of Utah. That can draw a "who cares" from people unfamiliar with the franchise. But learning there is a Popeye's in Utah is rather a big deal for those who have been in parts of the country where the restaurant is a regular in the lineup of fast-food places.
Steve Collier is the general manager in Utah of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, or AAFES, which manages on-base amenities like restaurants. He told me that people driving along I-15 see the 'Popeye's' sign through the base fence and have been a little frustrated when armed military guards at the gate give them one of those "you can't get there from here" experiences.
So it's an exclusive for people who have access to the base: airmen, service member's family, a contractor on official business, or a civilian working on base. Those civilians include the people who work at Popeye's, who get discounts on food at the restaurant. I guess that means they literally get paid in chicken.
I figured out another way to get to the Popeye's on base: be a journalist and tell the base's public affairs office you want to write a column about the only Popeye's in Utah.
It worked! After a few interviews, I was in line waiting to order, recalling that the last time I had eaten at a Popeye's was in 1999 near the National Press Club building in Washington, D.C.
Jennifer Jarrett was in line in front of me. She confirmed something Collier told me that I was having a hard time absorbing: She applied for a job on base so she could get to Popeye's.
There are 5,400 military personnel and 12,000 civilians working on base. I wonder how many of them would repeat what Jarrett told me: "When I was considering a job here I would tell people that one of the benefits is that I can eat at Popeye's on base."
Life on a military base is quite different from life outside the gate. There is an abundance of blue, and uniforms, on an Air Force base; green, and uniforms, on an Army base, and so on for the Navy and Marines. AAFES plays an important role in that military environment by making sure the people on base have important creature comforts.
It's common for larger bases to have restaurant basics that cover the fast-food basics: pizza, hamburgers and chicken. I had assumed the particular franchise brands would be determined by which had the lowest bid, but I learned that service members have a lot to do with which franchises are chosen, and that foods familiar with them can give an airman a taste of home (pun acknowledged) no matter where they are — something AAFES considers an important part of the service it provides.
Some seventy bases in the U.S. and overseas have a Popeye's franchise. Hill also has a Anthony's Pizza and a Burger King, rounding out the trio of fast-food basics. For what it's worth, Collier told me the busiest Burger King on the planet is an AAFES concession — in Baghdad. Go figure.
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