The Food Biz: No chickening out

Bojangles’ is counting on quality to help it make a bigger mark in the Nashville market [From our print edition featured in this week’s City Paper]

The Bojangles’ fast-food chicken chain, which boasts 500 locations but only one in Nashville, says it has an aggressive plan to add stores in Middle Tennessee.

Bojangles’ Famous Chick’n and Biscuits, as its officially called, opened in Charlotte, N.C., in 1977. It has been steadily expanding outward ever since and now reaches as far south as Florida and as far north as Pennsylvania.

Nashville is a top expansion target for a lot of reasons, said Executive Vice President Eric Newman, including its food culture and geographic spot in the region. “Nashville is a lot like Charlotte,” he says. “It’s one of the great Southeast metro areas.”

Bojangles’ menu differs from the stereotypical quick-chicken joint in a couple ways: its emphasis on breakfast, which is served all day; its emphasis on biscuits, upon which the breakfast sandwich is built; and some zippy side dishes like Cajun pinto beans and dirty rice.

Newman touts Bojangles’ sales figures — steady growth despite the recession, thanks in large part to strong repeat-customer business — but what he really wants to talk about is the food. And for anyone used to the precooked, prepackaged model of fast-food delivery, what he describes boggles the mind.

I am deeply skeptical of the word “from scratch,” but here’s what Newman claims about how the chicken arrives in your handy 12-piece box: Not only is the chicken delivered fresh (not frozen) to your local Bojangles’ kitchen, but all the cooking takes place there, too: starting with 12 hours of marination, followed by an eight-step breading process done by hand.

The biscuits also are made on the premises, he says, a fresh batch every 20 minutes. “We’re really like a fresh bread bakery.” Yeah right, I figure, the “fresh” frozen discs of dough are stuck in the oven every 20 minutes. No, Newman insists, the biscuits are made from scratch.

“Biscuits are an art form,” he says. “It’s a highly honored position in our restaurants. It’s an intricate, delicate process to manage.”

And what about the chicken recipe? This is Nashville. Is it hot chicken?

Newman says he hasn’t heard of Nashville-style hot chicken. But Bojangles’ recipe has “a cayenne kick that many people find addictive,” he says, without being “scary hot.”

So Bojangles’ definitely has a patter, a pitch, with a lot of points to highlight: Breakfast is 40 percent of the business, and breakfast eaters tend to visit Monday through Friday, unlike the twice-a-week burger bunch.

Newman cites a figure: In the category of freestanding drive-thru restaurants, Bojangles had the second-fastest growth in the country last year.

Bojangles’ will need a good pitch and persuasion to keep up with its goals for Nashville. It has one franchise owner here now, Henson Moore of Kick’n Chicken/Bojangles’ at 7000 Charlotte Pike, but it’s working to sign up several more to meet its eventual target of four to five new Bojangles’ here every year — though the company might end up owning some Nashville-area locations too. (Almost 200 of the 500 current locations are company-owned.)

Newman’s voice warms when he describes Bojangles’ “cult following,” with people as far away as New York City pining for a dose of the cayenne kick. I haven’t tried Bojangles’ chicken, but if what he claims is true, we will all be jonesing for Bojangles before long.

The hotness returns

Speaking of chicken, there is no chain that can replicate Nashville’s own fiery signature: hot chicken, the poetry and poultry of pain, ecstatic agony deep-fried on the bone.

The Music City Hot Chicken Festival returns to East Park on July 4. It welcomes back Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish, 400 Degrees, and Murfreesboro’s The Chicken Shack, and has a newcomer in Pepperfire Spiced Chicken (which opened a few months ago in on Gallatin Road near Trinity Lane).

The fest just lassoed a title sponsor, Piedmont Natural Gas, and has once again tapped the students at Watkins College of Art, Design & Film to help design the snappy imagery to promote the event. Graphic design prof Dan Brawner sent 16 students to do research at Bolton’s and interpret the experience in suitably striking images.

The class teamed with Bryce McCloud of Isle of Printing to create a letterpress poster to present to festivalgoers. Ily Phelps, a sophomore graphic design major, came up with this year’s poster design.

The amateur hot chicken cooking contest returns and there will be live music and activities for kids. Admission is free and the first 500 people will get a free chicken sample. After that, you must head to the food garden to purchase your chicken and beverages, including local Yazoo beer if you care to cool your palate that way. (The chicken is available in varying spice levels.)

Although some would say the festival’s only real mission is to spread the gospel of hot chicken, proceeds benefit the Friends of Shelby Park, an important slice of East Nashville greenspace.

The festival is 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, July 4, at East Park, 700 Woodland St. For more info, check out nashvillehotchickenfestival.com.