How Big Oil Killed Popeyes

Casper, Wyoming

My dad has some unexpected surgery last week, so I took the two boys on a quick two day trip to Casper, Wyoming over the weekend to see him. (He’s recovering quite nicely, for those who are curious.)

It was interesting returning to a town I haven’t lived in for over a decade and haven’t visited for over five years. For the most part, it appears the town has changed for the better. There’s a lot of growth on the east side and there’s plenty of jobs thanks to the energy boom Wyoming is experiencing. (More on that in a minute.)

The first thing I noticed driving in was a Popeyes. Popeyes! I would have fallen over if I wasn’t already sitting down. Marathon Girl and I first had Popeyes back in Houston and loved it. When we find ourselves out of state, we always hope we see a Popeyes so we can eat there.

Of course my first thought was: How on earth did Wyoming get a Popeyes before Utah?

Then I thought: I get to take the boys to Popeyes! Marathon Girl’s going to be jealous!

Then I noticed the giant For Sale sign in front of the building. My hopes were crushed. There wasn’t going to be any Popeyes for me or the boys. How can the people of Casper not support a Popeyes? Don’t they know there’s not a chicken place in the entire state that’s better than this?

We arrived at the hospital a short time later. After taking to my dad for a bit, he asked if Casper had changed much. I mentioned the Popeyes I had seen on the drive in and said something about the people of Wyoming not being ready for such tasty food.

“It was getting plenty of business,” my dad said. “The reason it closed was because they couldn’t find enough people to staff it.”

I asked my dad what he meant and he explained that a lot of people were now working for the oil companies and making a lot of money doing it. As a result there was a shortage of workers in Casper. And despite paying about $10 an hour, the local fast food establishments can’t find enough people to work there.

Admittedly, I was a little skeptical. An abundance of jobs wasn’t something the Casper I lived in for two years had. Any job that could be found didn’t pay much higher than minimum wage.

An hour later, I took the boys out for dinner so my dad could rest. As I drove around town, it did seem that just about every fast food place I passed had a sign in the window or words on their marquee saying they were hiring – always a sign of a strong economy IMHO. Still, I remained skeptical.

Then on the way out of town the next day, I stopped at McDonalds (instead of Popeyes) to feed the boys before the long drive home. Since it was a Sunday afternoon about two, I was surprised to find a long line at the McDonalds. Had I been traveling alone, I would have skipped McDonalds entirely and eaten elsewhere. But the kids love McDonalds and since I actually wanted them to eat something before driving home, I opted to stand in line.

The McDonalds was understaffed. A total of four employees ran store. And though they were working hard and fast, there simply wasn’t enough of them to get the orders out fast enough. As a result, I stood in line for nearly 30 minutes before ordering. (Boys, know I must really love you to do that.)

Behind me in line stood a husband and wife dressed in camouflage. They had spent the morning in the mountains hunting and come to town to eat and got a kick out of watching my boys trying to behave while we waited in line. We started talking and I started asking them about the job market. They confirmed my dad’s observations about the shortage of labor and a lot of people going to work in the oil fields. When I brought up Popeyes, they too said that it had been a popular place to eat but the owner couldn’t find people to work there. The guy mentioned that there was no reason to be unemployed in Casper and, if you were, it was your own damn fault.

After feeding the kids, we headed back on the seven hour drive home. I was a little more observant on the way home and noticed a plethora of new oil wells and exits raps that dotted the sagebrush along I-80 as well as a huge open pit coal mine East of Rock Springs and two giant windmill farms East of Evanston. Apparently the Wyoming economy is doing quite well despite the economic problems the rest of the country is experiencing.

Observations aside, the trip was a great bonding experience for the three guys in the family. Despite 14 total hours of driving, the boys really enjoyed having time alone with dad in the car talking, singing along with whatever CDs dad put in the stereo, and learning the difference between cows, antelope, deer, and horses.

Though the circumstances of our unplanned trip weren’t optimal, I’d be up for another long drive with the boys anytime.