Tom Boland’s marketing career has spanned roles from Barstool Sports to WarnerMedia to Turner Broadcasting, Warner Bros., and World Wrestling Entertainment. As diverse as that resume is, there’s always been a formula: No. 1, is there a great product? And secondly, do the fans like it, or do they love it?

When Boland began exploring Bojangles, he came to the chicken chain’s home base of North Carolina and did something relatively novel in today’s digital-frenzied world—he asked people about it. He did so in airports and hotels. Have you been to Bojangles? What do you like about it? Do you have a go-to?

The first week he accepted the job—Boland was tapped as chief marketing officer in March 2023—he drove down from Connecticut. He parked in a Bojangles one Sunday and got in line with a grandma, dad, and daughter who were grabbing food after church. They saw the out-of-state plates and asked if he’d ever been. “And they proceeded to tell me what their favorite menu item was as we’re waiting in line,” Boland says. “… And I’m thinking, ‘when in my life has any one ever done that?’ Burger King? It doesn’t happen. It speaks to the cult-like following.”

Needless to say, while Bojangles was Boland’s first fast-food gig, it fit his playbook. So he began looking at ways to unlock those visceral reactions, just as he had in prior stops (Boland was VP of marketing at Barstool, where he led efforts for 65 shows and modernized the brand’s collateral).

One lever that emerged was Bojangles’ Bo-Berry Biscuit. The buttermilk product, adorned with icing, and baked with Bo-Berries, was introduced in 1987—the same year Seasoned Fries hit the menu and a decade after the debut store opened in Charlotte.

Boland figured the iconic item’s biggest whitespace was simply its exposure. The brand launched a Bo-Berry Cookie last year, which ended up boasting five times the anticipated demand executives expected, Boland says. “It’s been wild,” he notes. “And what’s been powering that growth is the fans are promoting it for us. They’re doing a lot of reading and reviews and telling their friends about it, which is feeding the growth.”

Chatter around the cookie and the original product flooded social media. And as the former erupted in popularity, Boland says, Bojangles started looking at data and plotting an encore. Here, too, it decided to listen instead of tossing ideas into the world and hoping something stuck.

@cass.fletch Run dont walk #Bojangles #boberrybiscuits #boberrycookies #Delicious #food@@Bojangles ♬ Belong Together – Mark Ambor

North Carolina residents are well aware of a menu hack that’s been happening at Bojangles for years. The brand knows as well, but it never tried to track it.

Customers ask for a Bo-Berry Biscuit and sausage patty and put them together to create a Sausage Bo-Berry Biscuit. But now equipped with dialed-in tools, Boland realized there was a cluster of activity happening around colleges. There’d be a spike on Thursdays and Fridays at select stores. So they went to those locations and began asking team members what was happening.

“Oh, it’s the Sausage Bo-Berry. Consumers come in and ask for it all the time,” Boland says. “We decided to look at how they made it.”

Customers cut the Bo-Berry Biscuit in half and wedge the sausage inside. Naturally, this isn’t the most efficient process for a drive-thru-centric setup, regardless of what end it’s happening on. Either somebody needs to pull over or an employee is slicing a product and hacking a menu in ways it wasn’t operationally designed to.

@therealfoodstalker Trying Bojangles’ new Bo-Berry Sausage Biscuit. You gots to give this biscuit a try! @Bojangles #BojanglesPartner #ItsBoTime #therealfoodstalker #Bojangles ♬ original sound – Food Stalker

Bojangles’ culinary team rethought it. They put the icing on the inside and “this has been such a runaway hit since we launched it,” Boland says. “We added a fun color. We added the purple to help it stand out and we put it in the drive-thru. And, once again, just like the Bo-Berry Cookie, the fans are really helping to promote this.”

Beyond the exposure and ensuing trial, Boland says the product enabled Bojangles to expand its dayparts. There’s Bo-Berry Biscuits in the morning, noon, whenever somebody wants it in whatever form (there are even milkshakes in some new-market developments).

“We’re bringing the fun element of the brand to consumers,” he says.

This kind of consumer groundswell is always vital for a retail brand, but there are different stakes at Bojangles these days. The brand added 270 units to its pipeline in 2023 and opened 40 new locations, including 10 in new markets. A revamped expansion strategy was launched in 2021 alongside a new boneless chicken menu that features “the best of Bojangles,” including the hand-breaded Bo’s Chicken Biscuit for breakfast and Bo’s Chicken Sandwich and Bo’s Chicken Tenders for lunch and dinner, with no bone-in chicken. The brand also introduced a “Genesis” building prototype that spotlights digital menuboards, dual drive-thru lanes, and a new staffing model, all aimed at simplifying operations, reducing complexities in the kitchen, and enhancing guest experience. In April, Bojangles inked a 30-unit deal to enter Los Angeles for the first time, which it hopes to do by early 2025.

To note, Bojangles’ bone-in menu will remain central in legacy markets.

Bojangles expanded by net 25 stores in 2023 as average-unit volumes reached $2.269 million—a record that beat the previous year’s high mark of $2.1 million.

The brand has a history in trying to leave North Carolina and struggling to solidify roots. It was public from 2015 to 2019 before Durational Capital Management LP and The Jordan Company, L.P. acquired the brand. Former McDonald’s executive Jose Armario was named CEO and, after navigating COVID-19, set the plan in motion. Ahead of its sale, Bojangles launched a “restaurant portfolio optimization program” designed around closing underperforming stores and refranchising.

The new staffing model focuses on a restructured team equipped to handle high-traffic volumes and improved team training, as well as outside order-takers and food runners for the drive-thru.

Alongside the infrastructure work and menu redesign, Boland says Bojangles has something else going in its favor this go-around—a user-driven megaphone. There are an uncountable number of videos on TikTok and other platforms, as Boland shared, providing feedback. “You know social media,” he says. “They’ll let you hear it if they don’t like something. But when they do like it, we have to call the supplier to keep up with the demand.”

ESPN recently shared a story about NBA superstar LeBron James having a love affair with Charlotte. Why? The video below explains it.

Boland says there’s no real end in sight for where this listening tour takes Bojangles’ innovation vehicle. “There’s no microwave in the back,” he says. “We can do fun stuff. We’re launching a ton of products this year just to ride the wave and give the product variety that people are looking for. And the fans are rewarding us by helping to promote it and get the word.”

“The love of the brand is real.”

When Boland began at Bojangles, he wanted to know what it was like inside restaurants. He learned how to make biscuits, the brand’s famed Sweet Tea, bone-in chicken, and more. Boland also spent ample time talking to employees about how they got here and why they’ve stayed. Do they have a menu hack or favorite combo?

That’s where the brand found out about “Bird Dogs,” which are essentially a Bojangles Chicken Supreme tender placed into a split-top bun (like a hot dog), topped with pickles, and drizzled with Carolina Gold Sauce (a tangy honey mustard-based barbecue slathering).

Somebody in the office shared a story with Boland about how, growing up, his coach would buy a box of Supremes and hot dog buns. After practice, the kids would create “Bird Dogs.”

“It’s this organic activity that’s been happening with our products for years,” Boland says. “We bring it to the market for everybody to enjoy and it’s been a home run. It’s been flying off the shelf. And it’s super easy for restaurants to make.”

The product, which officially landed in April, only has the one sauce at present. But there’s no reason Bojangles can’t add new ones, Boland says.

Also, to nobody’s surprise, Bird Dogs are all over social media.

@turnuptwinstv Get Your Hands on Bo's Bird Dogs! Handheld Bo On the Go! #BojanglesPartner #ItsBoTime #BoBirdDog #Bojangles ♬ original sound – TurnUpTwinsTV 👯‍♀️

“Listening to how people have enjoyed the food and how they’ve hacked the food has given us so many ideas that we then take to the menu innovation team,” Boland says. “We then bring all this new news to the market, which has been great. Because in the current state of the economy where there’s so much pressure, not only on the consumers’ check but also on choice, you want to have the fresh options. And we have the flexibility in the back of our kitchens to do that.”

“It’s listening across the board,” he continues. “Not only what consumers are saying directly to us in restaurants, but what are the social comments? What are the digital comments? And then you’ve got to look at the sales. Is traffic coming in? How well is the product selling? What’s happening in the competitive space? Trying to find the perfect mix in this ever-changing world is how you capture the attention. But there’s no real one answer to it. You’ve got to adapt to the seasons. Adapt to the product. Try to figure out if your current customer is saying X, that’s great, make sure you’re listening to them. But what are you doing to attract new customers? With 30,000 people coming to Charlotte every month, how are you getting them to fall in love with Bojangles the same way people who grew up with it did?”

Boland says all these approaches and outlets will allow the brand to “warm the door” before it heads to new markets during this ongoing growth spurt. It’s going to work with local influencers and help people answer a question that’s always in the way of sustained growth—why do customers need this in their lives?

“What can we do to keep attracting new customers and keep rewarding our current customers?” he says. “So we’re just having a lot of fun trying to figure out how to remind people of all the great products we have and then whenever we have a new one, come try a new one.”

Fast Food, Marketing & Promotions, Menu Innovations, Story, Bojangles