No one could be more excited about Popeye's entry into the Twin Cities market than Dick Lynch, the chief marketing officer for the fast-growing food chain.

For Lynch, 58, Minneapolis is his adopted professional-life home after spending 20 years at the Minneapolis ad agency Campbell Mi­thun, where his client roster ranged from Betty Crocker to Toro and Kmart with Martha Stewart.

"I was head of strategic development and account planning. My job was to find out what made a brand distinctive and why people should care," Lynch said during a recent interview at the most recently opened Popeye's in St. Paul. "That drives all communications behind a brand."

As Lynch approached his fifth anniversary as CMO for the rebranded Popeye's, he spoke with the Star Tribune about the competition in the fast-food sector to stay relevant.

Q: How does Popeye's distinguish itself in the fast-food category?

A: What makes Popeye's distinct is its Louisiana heritage. That was true of the brand all along. I didn't make that up. I turned the switch on. This is what we are all about. This is about Louisiana. So we became the Louisiana Kitchen with a more-rich color scheme that was more authentic to Louisiana. The design arm of the Smithsonian called Popeye's one of the 15 best brand refreshes of the last 15 years. The brand remains Popeye's, but we describe it as a Louisiana Kitchen now, not a restaurant for chicken and biscuits.

Q: How did Popeye's change when it "refreshed" the brand?

A: We develop new products. We came up with "Bonafide" fried chicken. We used Zatarain's breading. We added Cajun gravy and red beans and rice to the menu. You'll find none of this in a typical fast-food restaurant.

Q: It seems a stretch that a Louisiana Kitchen concept could have a national appeal. How did that happen?

A: You could do a $5 million marketing analysis, and it would not lead you to believe there was an opportunity for Cajun chicken. Bone-in consumption is down. Cajun was a culinary fad years ago, and fried food is fried food. But there is an opportunity now because we've created it. People have either heard about it or seen us marketing it with such gusto that they want it.

Popeye's is in 46 states and 20-some countries. It's been on national TV since 2008. Same-store sales were up 7.5 percent in 2012 and are up 4.5 percent in the first quarter. Market share is going up, and annual unit volume is going up. There is real pent-up demand and that is robust to the bottom line.

Q: Minnesota has long been without a big Popeye's presence. But that is about to change, yes?

A: We acquired 28 KFC properties [nationwide] when one of their franchisees went into bankruptcy. Of that 28, 13 of those were in the Twin Cities. That was great for us. This is a growth market. Before, we had just one location. Almost overnight we will go from one to 14; we've opened six, and the remaining seven will be open by the end of the year.

Q: Your old agency Campbell Mithun is part of the Popeye's marketing strategy.

A: Campbell Mithun is Popeye's first digital agency of record. I asked my team to ask them to apply. No feelings would be hurt if they didn't get the assignment, but they were the leader throughout the application. Digital hasn't been a major part of Popeye's brand success but it needs to be. We are laying the groundwork for digital and social media. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of the entire system will be re-imaged in three years. We're in Year Two of that. It's a significant investment for the franchise.

Q: What does the future hold for Popeye's?

A: We are 98 percent franchisee-owned. We have 1,696 restaurants in the U.S. and 423 internationally. Chicken consumption has been rising every year for the last 20 years. This isn't true for pork or beef. It's versatile and incredibly healthy. We're the fastest-growing restaurant in the fast-food segment; we are No. 3 in terms of the number of stores opened and hope to be No. 2 this year.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269