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Bojangles makes no bones about its future

The traditional bone-in chicken chain is testing restaurants with menus pared down to its breakfast and boneless options. That’s the menu it is planning in new markets.
Bojangles boneless
Bojangles is testing restaurants that featured a menu with only breakfast and boneless chicken. / Photograph: Shutterstock.

Bojangles is ditching the bones, at least in newer markets.

The Charlotte-based chicken chain, which has made its living specializing in bone-in chicken, is planning to expand in new markets with a menu pared down to its breakfast and boneless options, the better to take advantage of shifting consumer demands.

Jose Armario, CEO of the 800-unit chain, said on this week’s episode of the A Deeper Dive podcast that the company has been testing a smaller menu featuring its breakfast, chicken sandwiches and chicken fingers, but not the bone-in chicken for which it’s known.

The company is testing the new menu at some restaurants in Memphis. Results have been strong thus far, and he said the company will likely use that menu in new locations going forward.

“We’re finding the customer is pretty happy, really. The sales have been well over our projections,” Armario said. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised, so far.”

Chicken is increasingly popular among consumers in general. And bone-in chicken had something of a renaissance during the pandemic as buckets of chicken proved popular meal replacements for consumers stuck at home, not wanting to cook.

But in general, much of that market has shifted to boneless options like chicken fingers or chicken sandwiches. That was highlighted by the popularity of Chick-fil-A, now the largest chicken chain in the U.S. and the country’s third-largest restaurant chain, period.

And in general, companies specializing in boneless chicken, such as Chick-fil-A and Raising Cane’s, have easily outperformed their bone-in cousins, according to data from Restaurant Business sister company Technomic. But even those numbers highlight one key fact: Popeyes’ growth in recent years has been driven primarily by the sale of its own boneless option, the chicken sandwich.

Armario understands this trend well. He was part of the private equity group Durational Capital Management, which took Bojangles private in 2018 for just under $600 million.

The chain was founded in Charlotte in 1977. It features a selection of bone-in chicken, though it is known as much for its biscuits and sweet tea as anything else. “I don’t know of anyone that has a better-tasting biscuit,” Armario said. “It takes 49 steps to make our biscuit.”

Bojangles also serves breakfast, featuring a selection of biscuit sandwiches, such as Country Ham. Almost 40% of the chain’s sales are before 11 a.m., Armario said.

At the same time, consumers after 11 a.m. have been more likely to order on-the-go chicken items like the aforementioned fingers and chicken sandwiches.

Consumers, for the most part, preferred their bone-in chicken chains to stick to that. In 2019, Popeyes broke through this barrier with its chicken sandwich, and other chains joined in the fray, notably KFC. Many of these chains are shifting much of their innovation focus toward those boneless options, which work well for on-the-go orders.

So, Bojangles decided to test a restaurant with a menu that featured its full breakfast menu, but with a lunch and dinner menu pared down to its boneless options. “We wanted to hit the sweet spot of where the customer is today,” Armario said.

He also said the new menu results in improved service. “By going with a more focused menu, we’re delivering a better experience and our customers are giving us rave reviews,” Armario said.

Bojangles likes the results so much, Armario said, the company plans to keep the menu in its new markets. But he also acknowledges the move is a risk, given that the chain will be effectively operating with multiple menus, one with bone-in chicken in legacy markets, and one without in new markets.

The company has an answer for that, too. “We left room in the kitchen” to add equipment for the bone-in chicken, he said. “If we want to add bone-in chicken, we can always do that.”

But, he said, evolution is important. “Look, it’s a new world,” he said. “If you stay where you’re at, you’re never going to move forward.”

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