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Popeyes owner, customers talk Sox and Chickengate

By Mark Shanahan
Globe Staff / October 18, 2011

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“Can I help the next Popeyes guest?”

It’s lunch hour at the now-infamous fast-food joint in the shadow of Fenway Park, and owner Jon Stilianos is at the counter. He’s wearing a black Popeyes shirt and a big smile. And who can blame him? His fried-chicken franchise on Brookline Avenue has been front-page news for the past two weeks.

“I don’t know if it’s helped business, but it sure hasn’t hurt,” says Stilianos.

He’s referring, of course, to the revelation that Red Sox pitchers Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Jon Lester had a habit of heading to the clubhouse during games to enjoy a few juicy pieces of Popeyes chicken and perhaps a beer or two. Lester told the Globe this week it was only an occasional ritual, maybe once a month, and isn’t the reason the Sox missed the playoffs in such spectacular fashion, losing 20 of their final 27 games.

Stilianos confirmed today that the pitchers -- and other players on the 2011 team -- were regulars at his place, but he wouldn’t say how regular. He said the big lugs usually picked up their boxed meals on the way to the park, and were always pleasant to the employees. (Interestingly, there’s a small framed photo of Beckett on the wall of the restaurant.)

“I was surprised to hear they were eating during games,” said Stilianos, adding that he served many players from opposing teams as well. “These (Sox) guys would get two or three pieces and a couple of sides. They really liked the corn on the cob.”

Believe it or not, some people actually want to blame Stilianos for the team’s historic collapse. The other day, he said, he pulled into a gas station and a guy in another car saw the Popeyes shirt. (Stilianos also owns the franchises in Roslindale, Roxbury, and Fall River, so he wears the shirt a lot.)

“He looked at me and said, ‘Thanks for screwing up the season,’” said Stilianos.

An informal survey of Popeyes customers today revealed that most think Chickengate is much ado about nothing. Several said they’re more troubled by the beer-drinking during games than the eating.

“It’s not like baseball is the most athletic sport,” said Alice Burch, a student at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology.

“Yeah, and if they were winning, it wouldn’t be a problem. Know what I’m sayin’?” said 20-year-old Jamal Mason, wiping his mouth and then dropping the napkin into a basket of chicken bones. “If you think about it, how did Big Papi become Big Papi? It was because of the chicken, man.”

For his part, Stilianos knows that fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits, washed down with a cold beer or two, probably isn’t the ideal diet for an elite athlete making millions of dollars. And he suspects that message will be communicated to next year’s Sox pitchers - whoever they are.

“I’d be surprised if John Henry didn’t shoot someone before he allowed another box of Popeyes in that clubhouse,” Stilianos said.