Bojangles'
photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

There are more than 600 Bojangles’ locations, but the best one of them all sits just off the Interstate 95 exit in Selma. That is the opinion of Brandon Sanders, a 36-year-old basketball trainer. I thought all Bojangles’ were the same; the ones in Asheville should taste like the one in Farmville. Then again, I’m not Brandon, who travels all around North Carolina and has eaten at more than 100 different Bojangles’. He picks up on the subtle differences between locations like a fried chicken sommelier. The biscuits in the Raleigh and Johnston County area, he says, tend to be better than the ones Down East. If you go to Kinston or Goldsboro, they have Dijon honey mustard sauce, something you won’t see in Raleigh or Greensboro. The tenderness of and breading on the chicken is critical. Leaving the Carolinas? Beware. Brandon once ate at a Bojangles’ in Maryland before a Redskins game. “It wasn’t the same at all,” he says.

I’ve heard others say the greatest location is in Vanceboro. Or Belmont. Or Plymouth.

 

 

Looking for consensus, I created a post on Reddit that asked North Carolinians which Bojangles’ is the best. Nearly 200 replies came in. In one day. The Western Boulevard location in Raleigh, the closest one to North Carolina State University, received the most love. Still, Brandon stands by Selma. For one, it’s 10 minutes from his home in Clayton, which also has a good Bojangles’. For another, it has the old-school orange awnings over the windows. In fact, if he drives by a newer Bojangles’, he’ll usually continue up the road to an older one instead, preferably one with a mansard roof. Once inside, Brandon’s eyes scan for a specific item behind the glass. “It’s about the fries,” he says. The seasoning is addictive, but it needs to be the right amount. “That’s how you can tell a good Bojangles’.”

Brandon’s Bojangles’ obsession started early, with family meals. Uncles from his father’s side of the family would always pick up chicken and biscuits to take home, while relatives from his mother’s side would often eat in the restaurant. But regardless of whether Brandon was taking out or staying in, he ate Bojangles’. Maybe, at some points, too much. He says he’s blessed with a fast metabolism, but even so, he’s decided to cut back — to two or three times a week. He could go to other places that sell fried chicken, but it wouldn’t be the same, he says. “They don’t have that soul to it.”

The company itself has a term for people like Brandon: Bo Fanatics. They eat a lot. They tweet a lot. A freshman at East Carolina University posted that she stayed in-state for college because of lower tuition and Bojangles’.

 

When I pressed her on this point, she said she wasn’t kidding. Folks in Bo-free zones complain that there are Bojangles’ in Honduras — true: There are three — but zero in their city. To help communicate all this passion, there are even Bomojis: company-created emojis that include characters kneeling and holding up a box of chicken like a sacrifice to the gods.

Some at Bojangles’ call the loyal following in North Carolina, where a third of the restaurants are located, cult-like. “They hate it when I say ‘cult,’ ” CEO Clifton Rutledge says of his colleagues. “Bojangles’ is a good cult.”

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“They hate it when I say ‘cult,’ ” says CEO Clifton Rutledge. “Bojangles’ is a good cult.”

Sonya Lewis can make roughly a thousand biscuits in an eight-hour shift. She’s worked at the Bojangles’ on Gate City Boulevard in Greensboro for 11 years. Twice, she won the company’s Master Biscuit Maker Challenge, which draws biscuit bakers from Bojangles’ worldwide. (One of the prizes: Sonya’s face is on paper tray liners at hundreds of restaurants.) All biscuit makers are supposed to follow a strict 48-step procedure, which includes an exact method of placing 15 unbaked biscuits on a buttered pan, and precise measurements for biscuit height, width, and light-brown color. If they’re not sold in 20 minutes, the biscuits are thrown out.

So if everyone makes biscuits the same way, what gave Sonya an edge in the competition? “You have to know the procedure,” she says. And what else? “You have to know the procedure,” she repeats, dryly.

Bojangles'

Sonya Lewis twice vanquished biscuit-making colleagues to win the company’s Master Biscuit Maker Challenge. Her smile now graces paper tray liners at various locations. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

Sonya works mostly out of the sight of customers in a small Zen-like nook, a few steps away from the clanging, gurgling, yelling, and incessant beeping of the rest of the kitchen. Chicken fryers are essential, too, but biscuit makers are more entertaining. Hence, in future Bojangles’, they’ll work behind a pane of glass in a “Biscuit Theater,” visible to anyone standing in line. (Fans of a competitor, North Carolina-based Biscuitville, point out that chain has had a similar biscuit theater for decades.)

Sure, the chicken is important, but the biscuit is the foundation on which everything else is built. Early on, when Bojangles’ started selling biscuits with chicken, sales rose 60 percent. Today, four out of five people who come into Bojangles’ buy a biscuit, and the Cheddar Bo and Bo-Berry biscuits have devoted followings. Biscuits have been important from the beginning. Cofounder Jack Fulk, who grew up in North Carolina, first owned a Hardee’s in Wilkes County, and perfected his biscuit recipe in the late 1970s. The time was right in 1977 to launch his new venture: Southern culture was being commodified nationally through food and music. Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Chef Paul Prudhomme was on the rise, priming palates for Cajun spice. The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd had been touring. And fast-food fried chicken, led by KFC, was becoming wildly popular — a trend captured in a country song by Billy Edd Wheeler:

They started a bunch of corporations
Everybody got into speculation
Chicken stock was so alarming
Nearly made Dow Jones go back to farmin’

In the midst of this Southern renaissance, Fulk and his business partner, Richard Thomas, opened the first Bojangles’ at the corner of West Boulevard and South Tryon Street in Charlotte. It had no seating. It was not a great location, Fulk once said, but a bad location just meant the food had to be better. The store did well, and the staples of that original 1977 menu — biscuits, fried chicken, sweet tea — are still mostly as they were.

The major changes happened behind the scenes. There were 100 Bojangles’ across the South by the time Fulk and Thomas sold the company to Horn & Hardart in 1981. The next year, the opening of a Bojangles’ on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan drew the curiosity of The New Yorker, which quoted one executive as saying: “It’s not like Hungarian goulash. Everyone likes chicken.”

Horn & Hardart predicted Bojangles’ would be the leading force in chicken by 1984. But after a fierce expansion, the company found itself overextended, and a few years later, many of the newly sprouted restaurants wilted away. The New York location eventually closed. The business changed hands three more times over the next three decades. Bojangles’ was expanding again when a firm led by former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson bought it in 2007. (Now you know why Richardson is often seen on TV sipping from a Bojangles’ cup in his owner’s box during Panthers games.)

Bojangles’ became a public company in 2015, and Wall Street wants it to keep growing. But Rutledge, the CEO, says the company grew too quickly in the early ’80s. This time, he says, Bojangles’ will spread slowly, like honey on a biscuit, first in the Southeast, and then outward. The company thinks it could, someday, have 3,500 locations nationwide, which means it might lose an ingredient in its cult-like appeal: exclusivity. Other eateries with similar followings, like Skyline Chili in Cincinnati, Shake Shack in New York, and In-N-Out Burger out West, get some of their national mojo from scarcity. When you travel, eating at those restaurants “feels like an authentic way to experience a place,” says Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Bojangles'

The first Bojangles’ (right) opened on West Boulevard in Charlotte; (bottom left) David Maisel, smiling in the vintage photo, opened the 10th location; an employee (top) wears the company’s signature orange in 1978. photograph by Bojangles'®

So if Bojangles’ goes coast-to-coast, will its chicken-and-biscuit charm become diluted? “As these dishes start to spread, I think they start to lose their Southern identity,” says Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. For example, he says, look at sweet tea, a Southern staple that’s now sold in all types of restaurants nationwide. Bojangles’, as a corporation, still uses the word “Southern” a lot: The document that announced that the company would sell stock used the adjective 13 times. But back in that 1982 New Yorker magazine story, there’s a particularly telling quote from a company executive trying to explain why New Yorkers would like dirty rice. “I don’t necessarily call it a Southern food,” he says. “I call it an American food from another part of the country.”

Other parts of the country are, slowly, getting a taste of the cult of Bojangles’. Last year, when the Panthers made the Super Bowl, a Bojangles’ logo-emblazoned SUV loaded up with sweet tea road-tripped from company headquarters in Charlotte to the game in California, a site more than 2,000 miles away from the closest Bojangles’.

 

Airports in Atlanta and Charlotte, both major hubs full of far-flung travelers, have Bojangles’ in their concourses. Some lucky fliers once got it for free. An online video shows a stunt from 2015: People are waiting at the baggage claim in Charlotte, the buzzer goes off, the conveyor moves, and out come yellow Bo Boxes filled with chicken. The travelers snatched them up. (They did, also, get their luggage.)

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I eat Bojangles’ about once a month, but my first taste came in 2005, when I moved to Charlotte and joined Big Brothers Big Sisters. My match, Malik, was 12 years old. We’d do the requisite activities — go to movies, talk, check out my office — but I began to see that he was using our outings as an excuse to get chicken and biscuits. Once, he noticed the garage door opener in my car and asked what it did. I told him. After a moment of deep thought, he declared: “You know what would be awesome? If every time you pushed that button, Bojangles’ appeared.”

You don’t really need a button to make Bojangles’ appear in the Carolinas. They’re everywhere. Ever notice how Bojangles’ tend to be on the right-hand side of the road when you drive to work? That’s no accident. The company knows you’re hungry, don’t have time to turn left, and a biscuit for breakfast sounds mighty good. Bojangles’ ads proclaiming “It’s Bo Time” blanket the airwaves. Many Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school students graduate at Bojangles’ Coliseum. When the UNC basketball team hits 100 points, Bojangles’ around North Carolina offer two sausage biscuits for $1, often leading to “we want biscuits” chants inside the Dean Dome late in games. If you’re older, you may remember the company for something else: In 1989, Bojangles’ was one of the only restaurants open immediately after Hurricane Hugo hit. Some of them used propane to cook.

Bojangles'

Three generations, one biscuit: Shantel Woodberry (left), her daughter Naomi Grant, and her mother, Debbie Woodberry, share family time at a Bojangles’ in Greensboro. photograph by Jerry Wolford

Bojangles’ comes standard on the North Carolina campaign trail. American Idol singer-turned-politician Clay Aiken claimed that he gained 30 pounds while running for Congress in 2014 thanks, in part, to the Bojangles’ drive-through. (He’s since lost the weight.) It’s also been used as a way to try to bridge the partisan divide. In 2013, a young Democrat testifying before a committee of mostly Republican lawmakers tried to warm them up this way: “I love Cheerwine. I love Bojangles’. I love NASCAR. I love barbecue. I love the great state of North Carolina.”

The chicken is important, but the biscuit is the foundation on which everything is built.

People say a lot about Bojangles’, but Bojangles’ also says a lot about us. The people who eat there are representative of modern North Carolina, spanning every race, income bracket, and age. In many small towns, it’s the only place that feels Southern among the chain restaurants and burger joints that have taken over business strips and interstate off-ramps. If you choose to see the South with honest eyes, says John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, you see that Bojangles’ is an example of modern Southern cuisine. “It delivers this food we associate with heart and somebody’s grandmama,” he says, “and delivers it through a drive-thru.” Sure, it may not be the best fried chicken and biscuits you ever ate, but it’s the one you eat most often. And for that reason, it tastes like home.

Earlier this year, on Brandon’s advice, I got in my car and drove two hours to Selma, passing at least a dozen other perfectly good Bojangles’ along the way. The restaurant there sits between an electrical substation and a convenience store, and is within sight of a Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Cook Out, Popeyes, Waffle House, KFC, Shoney’s, and Dunkin’ Donuts. That’s a lot of competition.

Inside, it looks pretty much the way Brandon described it. The carpet is maroon; the booths are well-used. There is stained glass above the wood paneling and transom windows that separate the line from the dining room, which is half full at a quarter till noon, and keeps filling up. The drive-thru line wraps halfway around the building. A Muzak version of “Smooth Operator” plays softly as I wait in line between a few wisecracking teenagers and a pair of gray-haired ladies with perms.

I order a Cajun Filet Biscuit combo, and the teenage girl behind the counter is deliberate in the way she fills up my Patio Red Cherry cola, waiting for the fizz to subside before topping it off. I sit by myself, trying to tell if the chicken is perfectly crisp, if the biscuit is fluffy enough, if the fries are properly seasoned. But after a few moments, I just finish my meal, and feel satisfied not really knowing if this location is the greatest of them all. Instead, all I can think of is an online reply I got when I asked which restaurant is better than the rest. “The best Bojangles’,” it read, “is the Bojangles’ I get to eat.”

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Markovich is a senior editor/writer at Our State, and a former special content producer for NBC Charlotte. He has won two 2011 regional Emmy Awards and regional Edward R. Murrow awards along with the 2011 Green Eyeshade award for Magazine Feature Writing, the 2010 National City and Regional Magazine Award for Personality Profile, the 2010 Clarion Award for a Magazine Feature Article, and the 2010 Green Eyeshade Award’s Best-In-Show for Non Daily Print Journalism.

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