It’s 9 p.m. on a Friday in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and the Cedar Ridge Red Wolves just won their men’s basketball game. Naturally, just as they do with every other home game, most in attendance migrate down the road toward the town’s Bojangles’.
Tommy Haddock, owner of the store, says the crowd is business as usual, as the Bojangles’ is also overrun on Friday mornings before school, when the local high school students stop by to grab breakfast before first period.
“We also have a senior crowd that eats with us almost every morning for breakfast,” he says. “They use us as a kind of gathering place.”
The restaurant is located in a shopping strip near a Wendy’s, a McDonald’s, and a Pizza Hut, yet those restaurants are stuck with the overflow while Bojangles’ is the go-to destination. That’s because out of the four restaurants, Bojangles’ has done the best job of cementing itself as a social hub in the community.
Sociologist Karla Erickson studies restaurants that function as social gathering spots.
“One of my primary interests was thinking about how these spaces develop where people say, ‘Oh, that’s one of my favorite spaces,’” Erickson says. She suggests any restaurant looking to make itself a social hub begin with nearby groups or organizations.
“Start really locally within the first couple of blocks where you’re located,” she says. “Look at teams and the schools and churches and synagogues. Then ask yourself: What are people’s habits? When are they already together and … hungry?”
If a soccer team plays close to the store, Erickson suggests asking if it would be possible to sponsor the team or offer post-game deals. If there’s a nearby church, discount prices for the couple of hours after services conclude.
“It’s critical that managers identify whatever local rituals are already underway,” Erickson says. “Invite those connections.”
She also recommends rethinking the environment that your store creates for customers.
“I think some quick-service restaurants cause people to feel like they should move on,” she says. “Providing Internet or free refills and kind of a welcome feeling lets customers know that if they’re there for a while, that’s encouraged.”
Justin McCoy, senior marketing manager for Cousins Subs, says the Milwaukee-area chain tries to address both of Erickson’s suggestions.
“We provide a very warm environment,” he says, citing the fact that several of the stores have recently installed flat-screen TVs so customers can stay in the restaurants and watch local sporting events. “We want you to be treated like family when you come in our stores.”
Many Cousins Subs locations also look toward local elementary and high schools and hold in-store donation nights for the groups. They try to make the fundraiser an event by bringing out a prize wheel or providing other activities that create staying power for guests.
“Sometimes we’ve had donation nights where that group will volunteer to wait tables in return for the donation we’ll give back,” McCoy says. “As you move away from the event, I think [the fact that we’ve done something memorable for the group] leads to those groups coming back to us.”
The Hillsborough Bojangles’ also makes donations to its two local high schools, both of which are less than three miles from the store, and sponsors promotions at athletic events.
But something else drew Bojangles’ senior breakfast crowd, which is such an established part of the store’s operations that employees know to start making customers’ regular orders as soon as they see their cars pull into the parking lot.
Haddock thinks well-trained managers, an emphasis on employee-customer interactions, great-tasting food, and affordable pricing keep customers coming back almost daily.
“I don’t know that there is any one factor,” he says. “You never really know why someone eats with you. It’s hard to pin it down, so you have to emphasize all of those things.”
Quick serves that earn the status of social hubs in their communities reap the obvious reward of increased sales. But that’s not the only advantage.
“There are actually quite a few benefits that emerge,” Erickson says. “You have the opportunity to know your customers better, which lets you serve them better over time.”
She says employee morale can also increase—without the expense of having to raise wages—because staff members feel more valued by repeat customers and more invested in serving them.
Free advertising is another plus side to being a social hub.
“We are a relatively small chain, and we compete against larger chains that have a lot more advertising budget than we do,” Bojangles’ Haddock says. “Word-of-mouth advertising is extremely important to us.”
The situation has its downsides as well. The floods of customers that coincide with certain events can be difficult to handle. Cousins Subs brings in additional staff support from the corporate office to help deal with the influx of business during events.
Bojangles’ also will add staff members during shifts where managers anticipate crowds.
“All local managers are generally very tuned into sporting events that are happening at the high school, and we will staff accordingly,” Haddock says. “We also know what the young people in general are going to eat. We’ll start a few minutes ahead of time and cook a little extra of those so we know we can get them through the lines as quickly as possible.”
Another difficulty associated with a store’s being a social hub isn’t as easily addressed.
“When people spend a long time in your restaurant, they’re kind of using your space almost for free,” Erickson says. “And then some people will come and join and don’t purchase anything.”
McCoy says Cousins Subs employees will clear tables for customers, but that there’s never any specific direction for them to leave quickly.
“We’re in the business of getting people in our stores, and we’re not in the business of turning people away,” he says.
Despite the challenges that arise as a result of being a social hub, restaurant operators agree that the benefits far outweigh the downsides.
“I can’t think of any reason at all why we would not want as many people in our dining room as we could get there at any time,” Haddock says.