It’s Bo Time

    With its distinctive flavor profile, strong breakfast daypart, and regional success, Bojangles’ and its Southern hospitality are finding an ever-broader fan base.
    | August 2014 | Mary Avant

    Bojangles’

    Bojangles’ is approaching the $1 billion annual sales mark as it considers growth outside its homebase in the Southeast.

    Charlotte, North Carolina–based Bojangles’ may fall into the chicken quick-service category, but as any executive, operator, employee, or loyal fan will tell you, it’s all about the biscuit.

    And for good reason: The item is included or featured in nearly 80 of the brand’s menu items, a fact that explains how more than 3 billion biscuits have been served at Bojangles’ since its inception in 1977, says senior vice president of marketing Randy Poindexter.

    Made from scratch by a certified Master Biscuit Maker and baked fresh every 20 minutes throughout the day, the Bojangles’ biscuit is a staple and major selling point in each of the three dayparts.

    “Our founder actually invented the quick-service biscuit,” says executive vice president Eric Newman. “While these days you can find them on national chains’ menus from Maine to California, we’re really kind of the master of quick-service biscuit making.”

    That masterful touch, in an era when Southern cuisine is increasingly in vogue across the U.S., has helped Bojangles’ grow to the point that it now has about 575 units and did nearly $1 billion in sales in 2013, despite being located almost exclusively in the Southeast. The brand’s 2013 success nudged it up to spot No. 27 from No. 29 in this year’s QSR 50.

    Of course, it’s not just the biscuits drawing regular customers to Bojangles’. Its bone-in fried chicken—of which Poindexter says the brand has sold 1.4 billion pieces—isn’t anything to ignore, either. After being delivered fresh to each unit, every piece of Bojangles’ chicken is marinated overnight for 12 hours, then double-dipped and hand-breaded before being served (with a biscuit, naturally) to the brand’s Southern food–loving customers. “We’ve tried mechanizing,” Newman says, “but it doesn’t produce the same product.”

    In addition to its bone-in fried chicken, the brand also offers spicy chicken tenders (Supremes), a non-spicy alternative (Homestyle Tenders), and boneless grilled chicken bites (Buffalo Bites), as well as other proteins such as beef and pork.

    And loyal customers know that no meal is complete without the brand’s Legendary Sweet Tea, a third menu cornerstone of which consumers have gulped down more than 160 million gallons over the brand’s 37-year history.

    “We steep it the old-fashioned way,” says Mike Bearss, senior vice president of research and development for the concept. “We don’t put it in a coffee brewer and hit a button.”

    While its biscuits, chicken, and sweet tea are served all day long, there’s one daypart that, above all, has helped Bojangles’ rise rapidly up the QSR 50, this year jumping ahead of fellow chicken concept Church’s Chicken. The breakfast daypart, which has risen to prominence across the quick-service industry as customers clamor for additional dining opportunities, makes up nearly 40 percent of Bojangles’ sales and is the fastest-growing part of its business, Newman says.

    “While everybody’s trying to get into breakfast, the reality is it’s a very hard thing to do,” he says. “But it’s in our DNA. It approaches half of our business.”

    Whether operators are serving up a traditional Cajun Filet Biscuit or a Country Ham and Egg Biscuit, Bearss says, simplicity at breakfast is a must for Bojangles’, a point he drives home with a sign in the test kitchen that reads, “Stay out of your own way at breakfast.”

    “That means, don’t complicate operations and sacrifice quality or speed for a big number of products,” he says.

    However, that doesn’t mean innovation is absent. Rather, the brand prefers to limit the number of new products it introduces, relying on limited-time favorites like the Smoked Sausage and Pork Chop Biscuits—as well as an occasional permanent menu addition, like the Homestyle Tenders in 2013.

    “We’re not a new-product-of-the-month chain. It’s difficult to communicate to our customers and places extra pressure on our supply chain,” Bearss says. “Consistency, quality, service, and operational excellence are the keys to growth. New products alone are not the silver bullet.”

    In fact, during the recession, the brand took items off the menu so it wasn’t distracted in its execution, effectively increasing speed of service, Newman says. At the same time, it also placed a major focus on perfecting core menu offerings.

    “We went back to the drawing board to be sure, before we looked at anything new, that the processes and procedures made the best possible product out there that we could have,” Bearss says. This included a sandwich program aimed at improving the brand’s overall sandwich experience. The result was a new toasted, buttered bun that began rolling out in May.

    While new products aren’t popping out of the kitchen at every turn, innovation is indeed taking place at Bojangles’. Bearss says the Big Bo Box, a packaging and marketing item, is one of the biggest moves the brand has made in years. The Box, which was once used for large catering orders, was adapted to market family and tailgate meals, a boon for the brand in the family-focused and sports-loving South.

    In addition to the 2013 launch of its Homestyle Tenders—the first major product addition in more than five years—the brand also recently introduced Cajun Filet and Grilled Chicken Wraps and has plans to roll out kids’ meals, which will be a smaller version of the Bo Box that comes with applesauce and crayons, Bearss says.

    The brand’s innate Southern charm and personality extends beyond its homestyle menu items. Bojangles’ philosophy of delivering a warm, welcoming air of Southern hospitality also appeals to its regional fan base.

    “We believe it’s really important to always honor the heritage that built Bojangles’,” Poindexter says. “As a company that was born in the South—and we’ve operated throughout the Southeast for nearly four decades now—the customer base is huge. People have grown up and craved the traditional Southern recipes that are offered, in some cases, only by Bojangles’.”

    This regional aspect helps drive customer awareness for Bojangles’, which results in a surging number of impulse visits and purchases, says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies at consulting firm WD Partners. “That brand recognition and high unaided awareness are really strong attributes,” Lombardi says.

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    And while Newman says pointing out the brand’s Southernness is a bit redundant with its customer base, the brand does subtly call to mind its regionality and Southern charm through marketing and branding initiatives. In 2010, for example, Bojangles’ switched its marketing and advertising approach to focus on the concept’s cult following and loyal Southern fan base with the tagline “It’s Bo Time,” a campaign that signals its distinctive flavor profile and handcrafted products, Newman says.

    Though the tagline has been a hit for the brand, Poindexter says, Bojangles’ needed another marketing push in markets outside its Carolina home base to explain what “It’s Bo Time” means to the uninitiated guest. Enter “Nice To Meet You,” a campaign that rolled out to Southeast markets—primarily Georgia, Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee, and Florida—with radio spots that highlight the brand’s products and reveal what the concept is all about.

    Over the last several years, the brand has also begun exploring national advertising and sponsorship opportunities, namely through the Bojangles’ Southern 500, a sponsored NASCAR race held at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. In addition to that event, which is televised nationally on FOX Sports, Bojangles’ partnership with NASCAR allows the brand to serve concessions at the Darlington, Daytona, Talladega, Richmond, Bristol, Atlanta, and Charlotte Motor Speedways.

    “People from all over the country are coming to these raceways and being able to sample our products,” Poindexter says. “We’re trying to integrate ourselves into the race weekend experience at all the tracks.”

    This kind of wide-scale exposure particularly comes in handy as the brand continues to ramp up its growth across the Southeast. Having grown by nearly 40 units between 2012 and 2013, the brand, which was named the fastest-growing chicken chain in the industry by research firm Technomic in 2013, increased company and franchised unit counts each year. This year, Bojangles’ will open a new unit roughly every six days, for a total of nearly 60 units, Newman says.

    That growth follows a trajectory that began about a decade ago, Newman says. When the recession hit in 2008, Bojangles’ growth hardly faltered thanks to its strength in the breakfast daypart, as well as the fact that it has three individual dayparts, whereas many of its competitors only have two. “Really, we had our best years right through the recession and the years immediately following,” he says. “Real estate that had become unaffordable and unattainable in some cases and in some markets all of the sudden became available and somewhat affordable.”

    The brand doubled down on growth, particularly in company-owned units, helping the company attain its 60/40 franchise-to-company unit ratio and leading to an AUV of $1.727 million in 2013. “That’s unparalleled in the bone-in chicken restaurant [segment] or those concepts that are heavily weighted to breakfast,” Newman says.

    Combine this with a tight growth pattern, and the brand is setting itself up for future success, he adds. “We’re pouring restaurants into the six or eight states we’re most active in and, of course, spilling over boundaries somewhat,” he says of the brand’s expansion in core markets like the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia, Alabama, and Tennessee, among others. “It may not be glamorous, but the great bulk of the story is where we have 40 restaurants, we’re going to have 80. Where we have 30 restaurants, we’re going to have 60.”

    That doesn’t mean, however, that Bojangles’ is ignoring the rest of the country. Newman teased to multiple media outlets earlier this year that the brand sees room for growth up the East Coast and in the Midwest, and is having conversations about pursuing opportunities in those new markets. But if that’s the direction they go, executives will plot the expansion very carefully, he says.

    “We don’t want to be tempted by the siren songs of going every place in the country and getting ourselves scattered too thin in places we can’t support,” he says.

    Lombardi says Bojangles’ habit of sticking to its Southern identity and distinctive flavor profile helps insulate the brand from competition and market share erosion.

    “When you turn around and say, ‘We’ve got an established flavor profile; we have established that our food, to the consumer, appears wholesome and fresh,’ and then you add the power of unit economics that are driven by high regional density, high unaided awareness, and breakfast, you end up with a very powerful brand,” he says.

    With both its AUV and unit counts climbing, Newman says, Bojangles’ is expected to hit a major milestone some time this year: bringing in $1 billion in system-wide sales.

    “The best thing to do is to have major market share, increase levels of performance and same-store sales, increase the number of units where people already know you and you have a following, and let that spill over and multiply inevitably into new areas,” he says. “We want to do better at what we do and selectively add to that, whether it’s menu or markets.”