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    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.

    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.