Bojangles' wants to rule the roost

Fried chicken is Randy Kibler's favorite food. Good thing, too, because the 54-year-old Columbia native is finishing his first year as CEO of Bojangles', the Charlotte-based chicken chain that celebrated its 30th anniversary last year.

Kibler got his start in fast food at age 15, at a Hardee's owned by Carolina Panthers founder Jerry Richardson. From there, he worked his way up in Richardson's restaurant franchise company, Flagstar, before leaving and developing other chain restaurants, including Quincy's Family Steakhouse and Firehouse Subs.

When Richardson joined with an investment group led by former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl last year to buy a majority stake in Bojangles', he asked Kibler to take the helm.

As the Midtown Bojangles' in Charlotte bustled with a breakfast crowd this week, Kibler sipped sweet tea – no straw, please – and talked about his first year on the job and what lies ahead. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity:

Q. Before becoming CEO, you had experienced Bojangles' as a customer, I take it?

Absolutely. The Cajun filet biscuit is one of (my wife's) absolute favorites. We have an incredibly strong, loyal customer base. People talk all the time about getting their Bojangles' fix. If you go on the Web and put in Bojangles', people just say all kind of incredible things about how much they miss Bojangles', or college kids will put on there, “We go for a Bo run.”

Q. When you became CEO, did you want to maintain what was already there or were there things you thought could be built upon?

We already have great food. So it was really more about just, do the things that we do, and do them better than in the past. I spoke, obviously, with Mr. Richardson about it. That was his exact direction as well.

It wasn't like Bojangles' was doing poorly. But when you look at it, there were just things we could do better. We had added a few things to the menu which we've pulled back off, to keep it focused on breakfast, chicken and iced tea.

Q. What are some examples of what you reined in?

We had a second flavor profile of our chicken, Southern chicken – and there's nothing wrong with the product – but it's kind of a “me too” product. We can do better quality if we just have one (Cajun).

We had things like catfish on the menu, and barbecue. Good products, but not products that should stay long-term. We had just over time continued to add items and since they did well, they didn't take them out, and it made it difficult for (employees). To really make it work like it's supposed to, you've got to keep it manageable.

Q. How do you keep the chain moving forward while remaining true to what you're all about?

You just have to pick the things that are very pertinent. One of the things we did this year was add salads. And it took a little explaining for me to be able to say, “Well, I've been talking about reducing the menu and now all of a sudden I want you to add salads.”

If you look at who our competitors are, every one of them has a salad offering. We wanted to eliminate the veto vote: If you were deciding with a group of folks where you were gonna go to lunch and you wanted a salad, then we were not even in consideration at that point.

So from my perspective, yes, it's important to keep the menu focused. But on top of that, we should also have the things that are absolutely pertinent to be competitive. We just added gift cards, because it's a nice thing people give now at holidays.

Q. How has the chain been growing recently, and what about the future?

Our focus is on the Southeast right now: Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, northern Florida. If you add the Carolinas and Georgia, Alabama and that whole area, that's enough room to put 1,000 Bojangles' and not even bat an eye. If we can grow at 50 stores a year over the next five years, that will change the whole dynamics of the brand. Then you can start looking beyond that.

Q. So how do you introduce your food to people who aren't as familiar with it?

Fried chicken is nationwide. The sweet tea piece, maybe not.

Some of our competitors – the big guy, you know, the Golden Arch people – they sell biscuits just about everywhere they are now. They saw the success here, and they didn't have biscuits until people like Hardee's and Bojangles' did it.

Our job is to help (all franchisees), but more so, it's to focus all of our growth in the Southeast. If we do that, we have plenty of room to grow, and we know those customers are our customers. We don't have to worry about teaching them anything. We just have to make (stores) available, and they'll come.

Q. Where do things go from here?

We think that the average consumer wants a (fast-food) concept or individual restaurant they can count on and trust and be confident in. We're not an industry with a history of great consistency.

(McDonald's) created their company on consistency, not great food. It's dependable.

We want to be something beyond that. We want to be dependable and consistent so you have confidence in us, but with great flavor and taste.

Q. What do you hear from customers?

I read an article the other day that was on the Internet and got sent to one of us. …It was by a lady that had never been to a Bojangles' before. She had, like, a three-hour layover (in the Charlotte airport).

It was 5:30 or 6 in the morning, and she said she saw this place called Bojangles'. She didn't know what it was, but she said, “It smells good.” So she just got a biscuit with egg and cheese.

Her written description of it, we could have used in a commercial. She said, “I had to go back and get another one.” Then she said, “I was fortunate that on my return trip I had a layover in the same area, and I was looking forward to going to Bojangles'.”

Those are the kind of things that really make you feel good about the all the effort that goes into making things happen.