Known across the Southeast for its fried chicken and biscuits, Bojangles is looking to grow beyond its home turf and establish itself as a national player in one of fast food’s most crowded categories. The expansion strategy starts with a big change to the menu. 

While items like legs and wings still mix at a healthy rate in the brand’s legacy stores, all future new-market growth will feature a streamlined menu that doesn’t offer any bone-in products. Instead, the chain is leaning into its signature chicken sandwich and revamped tenders. 

“When you look at consumption patterns, boneless chicken is like a hockey stick on the graph,” says CEO Jose Armario. “So, we need to be where the consumer is.”

Bojangles is seeing growing popularity in boneless items.

Bojangles is hardly alone on that front. Boneless items have been booming on menus since the so-called “chicken sandwich wars” broke out five years ago, but consumer preferences were already heading in that direction before the social media hype started. Bone-in brands largely stayed in their lane for years while boneless competitors like Chick-fil-A and Raising Cane’s reaped impressive gains. Then Popeyes introduced a chicken sandwich in 2019 that became a blockbuster hit, triggering an industry-wide trend toward more handheld, boneless poultry options. 

Popeyes has been building on the sales layer with new variations of the viral product and the nationwide launch of chicken nuggets. KFC hopped on the sandwich bandwagon in 2021 and added nuggets to the mix last year, selling 100 million of them in the first eight weeks. Many brands are finding success with similar strategies, tapping into the growing demand for boneless chicken to attract a younger demographic. 

Wingstop CEO Michael Skipworth told investors earlier this year the company is seeing an influx of new customers, mostly Gen Z and millennials, who are “coming in through the chicken sandwich occasion initially.” Those newer, younger guests also tend to place larger orders and favor boneless wings, which now account for half of Wingstop’s sales.

“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to over the last five years that have family members that have never bitten into a bone-in product,” Armario says. “We live in a world where a lot of Gen Z grew up with nuggets and tenders. That’s all they know. That’s where their comfort is.”

Along with matching current demand, boneless offerings are more efficient from an operational perspective, he adds. One major advantage is the expedited recovery time. Replenishing bone-in products can lead to lengthy delays, sometimes spanning 30 minutes or even an hour, but teams can bounce back in just a few minutes when they run out of tenders. 

“When you look around at the brands that are winning, they’re the ones that have cut back on some of their offerings and really focused on quality,” Armario says. “There’s no question that if your menu is more condensed, and you’re focused on a few things and doing them really well, then you’re going to satisfy your customers more often by virtue of a happier team member.” 

The company paired the streamlined menu with a new prototype. Key features include a dual-lane drive-thru with digital menu boards and a biscuit station where guests can watch items being prepared, plus an ergonomic kitchen to improve the back-of-house workflow. There’s fresh equipment like thawing cabinets, daypart-specific holding zones, and induction cooktops that are programmed to ensure consistency. The stoves cut down on the number of steps involved and make for a better employee experience by lowering the average temperature in the kitchen. 

“It’s about elevating our experience and elevating our level of consistency,” Armario says. “That requires us to be more thoughtful about how we can put the best of the Bojangles menu in front of today’s consumer in a way that allows us to execute at a higher level.”  

Some of the world’s biggest chicken chains are using blueprints from their international operations to enhance their performance in the U.S. Executives at Yum! Brands say KFC’s success in selling boneless options domestically was influenced by strategies developed in global markets, which comprise 85 percent of its business. Leaders at Popeyes are actively studying global markets for best practices, using those insights to bring new kitchen equipment, streamlined procedures, and digital enhancements to stores in the U.S. 

Church’s Texas Chicken also is using insights from international operations to improve execution across its domestic system. Namely, it’s working to consolidate multiple battering systems for tenders, sandwiches, and bone-in products. 

Church’s Texas Chicken wants to focus on menu development that unlocks double or triple benefits.
Church’s TexasChicken now earns more than $1 million in AUV.

That’s one of several initiatives driving the brand’s resurgence under a largely new executive leadership team. Along with the focus on kitchen efficiency, the company is ramping up efforts to reimage existing restaurants under its Blaze concept, which features fresh design elements connected to its Texas roots. More than 100 stores have already received the update. CEO Joe Guith says the company is seeing a notable uptick in sales and traffic. Plans are underway for another 400 remodels over the next three years. Additionally, Church’s has increased visibility into its units through third-party audits and invested in improvements to the digital experience, transitioning to a new white label app and offering increased customization options. 

Guith says momentum started surging throughout the business last year. Church’s surpassed $1 million AUVs in the U.S. for the first time in 2023. It also posted a threefold increase in the number of domestic new deal signings. 

The most important factor driving the turnaround is a sharper focus on value. Easing commodity pressures and “a lot of work on the supply chain” helped with the pricing equation. More importantly, making accessible price points a key priority marked a return to the core strategy that has shaped the business for most of its 72-year history. 

“Two-thirds of our guest bases are multicultural and they’re significantly lower-income relative to our primary competitors. We want to own that instead of running from it,” Guith says. “There was this aspirational notion of moving higher-income and getting guests that we didn’t have, but the reality is that because we weren’t executing very well, we were just alienating the guests who already loved us.” 

He points to Church’s $2.99 two-piece and a biscuit meal. The bundle launched in 2022 as a limited-time offering but was extended throughout 2023 because it was so successful in driving transactions. It brought back individual meal occasions and helped the chain achieve its highest-ever traffic levels last year. 

“Having that compelling price point is super important for our guests in particular,” Guith says. “It’s something we got away from over the last five years or so in chasing competition and trying to launch premium chicken sandwiches. We were trying to beat someone at their game versus playing our own game on boneless. That’s really where we needed to pivot.”

The chain is cooking up plans for new boneless items that align with the return to value, he adds. And while bone-in chicken isn’t a “super growth category” like sandwiches, Church’s still sees plenty of upside to its core product. 

Going forward, the company will focus on menu development that unlocks double or triple benefits. Take the new spicy platform as an example. Guith says it tastes better and eliminates another unnecessary battering system. The company also is gearing up to launch an updated digital experience that includes a loyalty program—something it hasn’t offered before. And there’s a lower-cost prototype rolling out this year that shaves 700 square feet from the traditional build. The compact design features new equipment geared toward efficiency and throughput as well as multiple points of ordering. 

Church’s has been trimming its domestic footprint for the better part of a decade, but Guith believes it will have enough commitments to return to positive restaurant growth in under two years. Short-term, the company is targeting a 2-3 percent net unit growth run rate. Longer term, Guith says that could accelerate to 50 percent.

Other top players in the category are ramping up development. Popeyes anticipates adding 800 venues in the U.S. and Canada by 2028. Wingstop netted a record 255 new stores last year and is targeting even more in 2024. Raising Cane’s wants to double its footprint to 1,500 stores in the next few years. And while KFC’s domestic store count has been shrinking lately, it saw 2,300 international openings last year and surpassed 30,000 units worldwide earlier in 2024. 

Plenty of smaller chains are plotting aggressive expansion, too. From growth-minded upstarts like Hot Chikn Kitchn and Red Chickz to emerging national brands like Slim Chickens and Chick’nCone, fast-casual concepts of all shapes and sizes are riding the wave of America’s ongoing obsession with its favorite protein. Some, like Huey Maggoo’s and Dave’s Hot Chicken, are finding success with menus that specialize in specific product formats or flavor profiles. Many boast robust development pipelines and ambitious plans for the future. 

Take Big Chicken as an example. Cofounded by Shaquille O’Neal in 2018, the brand is approaching 40 units less than two years after getting into the franchising game. It also is gearing up for international expansion with plans to enter Central America, Canada, and the U.K. this year. 

Big Chicken was cofounded by Shaquille O’Neal in 2018.
Big Chicken has a $24 per person average check.

The chain’s flavor-forward menu offerings—think sandwiches topped with mac and cheese or jalapeño slaw—have helped it maintain a $24 per-person check average, even with inflation pushing more consumers to trade down or cut back on discretionary spending. Still, CEO Josh Halpern says there’s an imperative for everyone to maximize value, whether it’s dropping the price or giving guests more reasons to keep coming back. 

Big Chicken is tackling the value equation in a couple of ways. It beefed up its tech stack with geofencing, digital advertising, and customer feedback capabilities to better understand and engage with guests. It also is gearing up to launch a loyalty program later this year. Those investments, along with a host of community engagement and consumer research projects, are all geared toward fostering more experiential and personalized interactions. 

“We’ve also undertaken a rather large initiative to get food costs down without affecting quality,” Halpern says. “The key for us has been understanding what claims matter to the consumer and what they’re actually willing to pay more for. Do they understand and buy into claims about antibiotics or hormones? We really need to be able to justify why a franchisee is spending more on things like that to protect their unit-level economics.”

The company is using those insights to make some adjustments and take action in places where it feels its competitive price index is too high. The biggest challenge there is pinpointing precisely who it should measure itself against. 

Halpern says there’s an inverse correlation between a brand’s original combo meal price and unit count. There are chains with a handful of units that are priced higher than Big Chicken, and there are chains with hundreds or thousands of units that are priced lower.

“The tough part is figuring out the right comp,” he says. “We don’t do it market-by-market. I don’t think that works. You’ve got to go within a three- to five-mile radius and say, ‘What’s the pricing dynamic of this immediate territory?’ You have to get more micro in this day and age and not worry so much about the macro chicken category. Store-by-store, are you set up to win?”

That micro-level approach is only going to become more important for restaurants across categories as battles over compensation and workplace regulations continue popping up across the country. 

Halpern says chicken prices have largely stabilized and equipment prices have dropped considerably. But labor costs can vary dramatically from one store to the next. 

“One of the hardest parts as you’re growing a national or global chain is this notion of taking the overall temperature or trying to play to the least common denominator,” he says. “You really have to think about things at the lowest possible level, and that’s the store.”

Fast Casual, Fast Food, Food, Growth, Menu Innovations, Story, Big Chicken, Bojangles, Church's Chicken