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Bo’s Got It Made

Coming from a long line of country folk, I can tell you two things: our men knew how to work long hours, and the women prided themselves on their homemade biscuits.

So, you can imagine my grandmother’s chagrin once she and grandpa moved to Charlotte in the late 1970s and he discovered…Bojangles’! Though they hardly ever went out to eat, grandfather would frequently take a side route during his ‘errands’ to sit down for some biscuits with gravy, grits, and sausage. I’ll never forget how great it was to sit with him while enjoying Bojangles’ warm southern smells and country surroundings. With grandpa it was always, “Let’s go to Bo’s.”

This is but one example of why Bojangles’ continues to prosper since Jack Fulk and Richard Thomas founded it in 1977. The vision of these men was three-fold: to develop a quick-service restaurant featuring a distinctive, spicy flavor profile; to offer wholesome, made-from-scratch foods; and to present it in a fun, festive restaurant design with fast and friendly service. They developed a menu with the chain’s legendary fresh buttermilk biscuits, unique Southern side dishes like Dirty Rice and Cajun Pintos, and a recipe for fried chicken that has come to rival not only quick-service fried chicken competitors, but also many roadside mom and pop stores as well.

Since its humble beginning as a single store here in Charlotte, Bojangles’ trademark dedication to fresh food and friendly service has sealed its reputation for Southern cooking and Southern charm, and garnered a legion of fans and a loyal following for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Growth has catapulted nationally to over 350 locations in the Southeast, Midwest and New York/Pennsylvania region, and internationally to locations in China, Honduras and Jamaica. In addition to its 35 new locations opened in 2004, the company anticipates a total of 40 to 50 more by year-end.

Charlotte’s little chicken franchise has truly spread its wings.

The chicken and the egg

Bojangles’ has had its share of ups and downs, just like any other food chain, concomitant with its frequently changing ownership. After experiencing a solid start that carried the chain through the mid 1980s, it suffered a fate common to quick service restaurants: overexpansion, asset drain by venture capitalists, and discontented franchisees. Bojangles’ recipe for success appeared to be going stale.

Enter Joe Drury, a seasoned restaurateur who began his career at the age of 14 sweeping the floors in an Akron, Ohio, fast food restaurant. His passion for the business and seasoned work ethic helped him rise quickly through the ranks; Drury was supervising eight restaurants by the time he was 20 years old. From there, Drury joined Wendy’s International as a manager-trainee under the tutelage of CEO and mentor Jim Near, and moved to vice president of the company after decades of learning the business inside and out. Today, Drury is one of the central cogs credited with facilitating Wendy’s remarkable turnaround in the late 1980s.

Drury left Wendy’s International in 1991 to become CEO of the Carolina Restaurant Group, which purchased a number of Wendy’s franchises in the throes of bankruptcy. By implementing a powerful formula of hiring, training, refurbishing, remodeling, and marketing, Drury and his partners purchased the group and led the franchises to 172 percent growth in eight years.

Recalls Drury, “What we saw in the late 1980s and 1990s was that the fast food industry simply forgot what had made it a success. By creating a climate of incredibly low expectations with regard to quality, cleanliness and friendly service, while at the same time growing too rapidly, it basically brought about its own problems.”

While spearheading the rehabilitation of the stores he purchased, Drury says he was always eyeing the Bojangles’ concept. “What really called out to me was Bojangles’ distinctive food and presentation. You should be able to take down all the signage from a location, de-identify it entirely, and still be able to recognize it. The founders, Jack and Richard knew this and were well ahead of their time when they created Bojangles’.”

In the early 1990s when Drury was visiting Charlotte on a Wendy’s business trip, he was so taken with the restaurant he went back to Wendy’s founder and chairman, Dave Thomas, and suggested the two restaurants build side-by-side locations: “Everything about Wendy’s and Bojangles’ compliment one another, their flavor profiles, day part percentages and presentation.” Thomas agreed that the pairing couldn’t hurt, and Drury’s passion for his Wendy’s family and his future venture was cemented.

To this day Drury credits his mentors, the late Jim Near and Dave Thomas at Wendy’s for the opportunity to grow, for important lessons on how to run the business, and for having the faith to take risks. Comments Drury, “To this day, Wendy’s is still a family to me. If it weren’t for those guys seeing something special in what was once just a rough-necked kid, and the faith of my original partners, Cami and DeeDee Harris, Keith and Luddy Stowman, and Darryl and Andrea Ferguson, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Cooking up good management

Commanding his experience rebuilding bottomed-out eateries, Joe Drury was given the opportunity to jump on board the Bojangles’ bandwagon in 2001 as CEO and the chain’s fifth owner. Wendy’s Dave Thomas helped Drury with his non-compete agreement and introduced Drury to Hugh McColl, who was courting Wendy’s business. McColl facilitated the financing for Drury to buy out the previous CEO, Glenn Gulledge.

Right out of the gate, Drury attacked the company’s management structure. By combining veterans and new-blood alike, his immediate goal was to create a management force whose vision extended beyond immediate profits, to one that would see the brand well into the future. Explains Drury, “The industry had been drained by investors interested in making a quick buck, but the food service industry is not constructed that way. To survive in the long haul, you must be committed to devoting all the resources possible to your product, your teambuilding, and your presentation. What we saw were stores suffering from outdated equipment, poor-looking decor and uniforms, run-down facades, no promotion and an extremely dispirited morale.”

He continues, “Our plan was to stop planning new locations and start cleaning up our own backyard.” The new team updated operations, and focused on training and employee incentives. Says Drury, “We needed great operators, and an environment where our employees could feel secure and appreciated, as well as being given growth potential. I don’t care if you are 14 or 45; everyone needs these things to perform and to feel good about what they are doing.”

Drury recalls a memory from his Wendy’s International days, “People always noticed that Dave Thomas would walk right by all the ‘suits’ at Wendy’s. His first conversation would always be with those employees at the serving line. He knew that that was the backbone of the whole operation.”

Training is very much Bojangles’ spinal cord. Drury says, “The biggest and best investment we have made is in our franchisee training.” The corporate headquarters in south Charlotte clearly heralds this mission; its facade carries the bold red and yellow Bojangles’ signage, and the inside of the office is a combination of offices, conference rooms, and an on-site restaurant training area. At this facility, franchisees undergo carefully formulated and formalized classes in surrounds the same as their locations.

In addition to a carefully guarded regimen of ‘training up’ its employees, Bojangles’ also empowers its franchisees and managers with the voice and responsibility of making their own decisions.

“We had to overcome the perception that a corporate office was little more than a vulture looking for licensing fees. We care about our franchisees’ success, and they know they have an advocate within these walls. Our people work their heart out on the line, and they know we support their initiative. I am proud that they also know that there is someone behind this desk who has been there as an employee and a franchisee, and can see issues from their point of view,” he smiles.

Feeding a hungry market

While the nutritional demands and aesthetics of the food service culture have evolved considerably, Bojangles’ recipe for success has changed little. Bojangles’ traditional menu offers a variety that pleases its customers, while also introducing some newer items for the calorie/carbohydrate-conscious set.

Explains Drury, “We have introduced wraps, grilled fillets, and salads in many locations, and we are constantly considering ways to provide the tastiest product in the healthiest manner. At the same time, we are dedicated to providing the essence of who we are. Fried chicken is a tasty treat; nobody suggests eating it every day of the week. We are proud of what has satisfied so many customers over the decades, and we simply will not apologize for who we are.”

At the same time, Drury says his team is working to update the interiors and exteriors of its restaurants. “Given today’s environment, we want to remove the neon lights and hard seating that gives people the feeling they are being rushed. And the outsides of the stores are being built with tasteful aesthetics, like nice brick and well-placed windows that mesh well with the communities that surround them. The intent is to create a warm, comfortable appearance.”

Despite the popularity and continuing growth of the restaurant chain, Drury refuses to sacrifice quality. “We are very careful in our expansion. We spread out, rather than hop around, and we make sure that every new location has the components in place to be successful, especially in terms of operators. We plan smart growth. But there is no doubt in my mind that Bojangles’ has got legs; it will travel.”

Apparently the time is ripe for growing the reach of Bojangles’ fresh fixin’s. By identifying key positions in places like Myrtle Beach, Atlanta and Florida, as well as areas along the I-77 corridor, the company is preparing to attract a lot of attention. “By identifying places where we are visible, and providing a very satisfying experience, we are not only creating a new generation of loyal customers, but also the potential for interested operators.”

The company offers several store options for potential franchisees including an in-line design, a co-branded option for the convenience store industry, and the impressive free-standing model.

No matter what the location, Drury also insists that the company give back to the communities that support Bojangles’ with their patronage. Comments Drury, “You can’t just put up a sign and ask people to spend their money. You need to be involved in the community. Take care of the sports teams, feed the PTA, give away cups to non-profit groups.” He adds, “You don’t do it for the PR, and you certainly don’t ask for press. You do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Drury obviously has all the ingredients right. His full size average unit sales are $1.5 million and rising, and he says, some of the chain’s oldest franchises are the ones planning for the most growth. “That, Drury says, has got to be the biggest compliment I think we, as a company, can get.”

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.

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