Popeyes' Winner Winner Chicken Dinner

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I love fast food, but prior to the announcement that Aurora resident Zion Gray had won Popeye’s national “Are You Bonafide?” video contest, I hadn’t heard a thing about the company's call for thirty-second clips from chicken lovers across the country. So on my way to one of the area's eastern-most Popeyes to see Gray awarded his prize earlier this month, I decided to stop by a few more outlets to see what they thought about their hometown hero.

Stop number one was at Colfax and Gaylord. When I mentioned the video contest, a cashier responded, “That’s news to me.” And when I shared the information that the contest winner was from Colorado and that some sort of awards ceremony was going down that day, he seemed shocked. “I should probably tell my manager,” he said.

My next stop was at Colfax and Hudson, just a biscuit’s throw from my final destination. Here I was met with equally confused responses, and I wondered if perhaps the whole contest was a hoax.

But then I arrived at the Popeye’s at Kingston and Colfax in Aurora, where I spotted the dreadlocked Zion Gray seated in a booth beside the casually attired Karrie Kai, owner of four Popeye’s franchises on Colfax, including this one. Across from them sat Zion's proud wife, Victoria Body, equipped with a video camera set to record.

“Is this the contest awards thing?” I eloquently inquired.

“Yeah, are you just here to watch?” Karrie asked.

“I’m with Westword,” I replied. One of a handful of customers said to his friend, “He’s from the newspaper.” Another lunchtime patron modified the statement: “the best newspaper!”

Unprompted, Karrie mentioned his surprise at corporate Popeyes failure to market not just the awards ceremony, but the contest itself. But Zion seemed genuinely thrilled to have won, and answered my questions eagerly. During one of his multiple weekly visits to the Kingston Popeyes, which is just blocks from his abode, he’d spotted a card on the table promoting the contest, and he decided to use his music and video skills to document his appreciation of the restaurant’s chicken.

Zion actually submitted two videos to the web-based contest, and says the second was as good as the one ultimately proclaimed the winner, but “they wouldn’t let me win first and second,” he said. Then he pulled out his cell phone so that I could watch both of the clips proclaiming his and Popeyes authenticity.

In all, 32 videos were submitted for the contest; one of Zion’s entries received the largest percentage of the 16,000 total votes cast, making it the winner. Zion’s victory entitles him to an obscene amount of free chicken -- a meal per week for a year – as well as an iPod, some shwag and a pair of roundtrip tickets to one of eight cities (he chose Miami).

Zion sees this as the start of something big, and although he doesn’t yet have a website or Myspace page, he assured me that he’s legit (bonafide, if you will). And then he eagerly laid out his business plans, which include music and video production, albums and shirts. I think he even said something about real estate.

“I have an album coming out, Return of the King,” he said.

“Who’s the king?” I asked.

“I’m the king!”

“What are you returning from?”

Zion explained that he’d sat in with different jazz and reggae groups such as The Voice and Cannon & the Lion of Judah, playing keyboard and guitar, but then left the biz to work at Guitar Center and study music at Metro. “The royalty is new,” he admitted. “I used to just be one of the guys, but now I’m better.”

The official Popeyes photographer showed up a bit after the scheduled 3 p.m. ceremony and began to run through a checklist of shots he needed to get for some undisclosed corporate purpose. As if waiting for the cue, manager Maria DeLuna produced the obligatory massive check to be used as a photo prop. Zion’s excitement was apparent in his unceasing willingness to look enthused and tolerate the “say cheese” equivalent -- “say chicken!”

I stood by dedicated videographer Victoria, who shared more information about the contest and her husband. She assured me that Popeyes would be putting the videos online (which it did - www.bonafidechicken.com), promised to e-mail me some other work that Zion had done, and told Zion to invite me to his next show.

After the couple finished the first of many free meals, they toted the monster check out to their Grand Am to drive the few blocks home. From the sidewalk, a crazy-eyed pedestrian took notice of the spectacle and exclaimed, “Big winner over there!” And while the free chicken won’t totally offset Zion’s usual Popeye’s intake, he’s definitely a winner.

Look for his album and website, www.ziongray.com, which should be online soon. -Crow Jonah Norlander

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