Many fast-food chains have loyal customer bases, but few can match the dedication that Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen has inspired among its frequent patrons. The chicken and Cajun-themed chain has produced impressive growth since its founding in 1972, and Popeyes stock rewarded investors for years, especially following the financial crisis. After seeing returns in excess of 2,000% between late 2008 and earlier this year, Popeyes stock disappeared from public trading following its acquisition by Restaurant Brands International (NYSE:QSR). Now, Popeyes continues as a subsidiary of Restaurant Brands, which also operates Burger King and Tim Hortons locations. Yet the story of Popeyes stock is still inspiring to investors looking for strong growth opportunities in the market.

Tough times early on for Popeyes stock

Popeyes has existed as a company for 45 years, but its stock didn't go public until the turn of the century. Following an initial bankruptcy filing in 1991 that resulted from an overextended period of expansion during the late 1970s and 1980s, Popeyes creditors created America's Favorite Chicken Company, which was the parent of both Popeyes and chicken-chain peer Church's. America's Favorite Chicken, or AFC for short, went public in 2001, selling about 9.4 million shares of stock at $17 per share.

Popeyes' performance in the years following its IPO was mixed, but the overall trend was weak. By early 2002, Popeyes stock had doubled from its IPO level, but the shares quickly lost ground from there. By 2008, in the depths of the recession, the stock dropped below $4 per share, and many investors feared that difficult times would once more lead to dire financial consequences for the chicken company.

Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen location.

Image source: Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.

How Popeyes rebounded

After the death of founder Al Copeland in 2008, America's Favorite Chicken renamed itself Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, and a new era of prosperity began. The stock quickly jumped from its financial-crisis lows, reaching the $55-per-share mark by late 2014. Investors focused on the expansion plans Popeyes had, seeking to boost its international recognition at a time when many of its peers were seeking simply to retrench and regroup closer to home.

A dedicated group of patrons added to Popeyes' allure. Products such as chicken waffle tenders inspired new customers to try out the chicken chain, and the extent of defections from rival brands like KFC became more apparent.

Along the way, Popeyes sought to ensure that its experience would remain favorable for its customers. As then-CEO Cheryl Bachelder noted in 2015, an emphasis on creating memorable experiences for patrons while building a distinctive brand and boosting sales and profits was paramount, and the company kept gaining ground amid rising consumer sentiment about the restaurant chain.

Chicken so good, they bought the company

In February, Restaurant Brands International made an offer to buy Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. The $1.8 billion deal paid Popeyes shareholders $79 per share in cash for their stock. After a quick closing of the transaction, Popeyes stock no longer traded after late March.

Investors were generally pleased with the deal, as the stock had failed to make much progress over the preceding two years. Difficult conditions in the restaurant industry weighed on Popeyes, and even though its growth was stronger than that of many of its peers, it nevertheless didn't compare as well to the strong growth rates earlier in its history.

Some Popeyes fans have been nervous that the chain would decline in quality, with many suggesting that the Burger King parent company needed to change as little as possible. Yet with Popeyes having acquired the rights to its recipes earlier in the decade, there's no reason those visiting Louisiana Kitchen locations should see major changes.

What's ahead for Popeyes?

Popeyes stock is no more, but the fast-food chain is still going strong under Restaurant Brands' ownership. After delivering strong returns to long-term shareholders, Popeyes can push investors either to own shares of Restaurant Brands or simply to go out and spend their hard-earned gains at their favorite restaurant location.

Dan Caplinger has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.