By David Perlmutt
Burney Jennings swears the story’s true: Sometime in the mid-1960s, Jennings’ father, Maurice, and his uncle, R.B., were summoned to their dying grandmother’s bedside. Irma Rue Bass, known as “Nanny,” had important family business to finalize: Her grandsons, she told them, needed to decide who’d take her small farm near Murfreesboro, Tenn., and who would lay claim to Nanny’s secret recipe for her buttermilk biscuits, devoured by generations of Basses and Jennings.
R.B. got the farm.
Older brother Maurice jumped on the recipe. It’s proven to be a wise choice. Shortly after Nanny Bass’ passing, Maurice gave up selling flour for baking pizzas, and in 1966, opened two takeout joints in Burlington like the ones he’d seen during his sales travels. As Americans’ love for pizza grew, he opened more Pizza-To-Go stores, eventually renaming them Pizzaville, in the Burlington area and southern Virginia.
Mornings were slow, so with his inheritance, Maurice decided to test some of Nanny’s biscuits during breakfast hours. In short order, they began outselling pizzas. In 1975, he opened a stand-alone biscuit store in downtown Danville, Va., called Biscuitville.
Soon, Maurice was busy transforming his 12 Pizzavilles into what’s become a chain of Biscuitvilles that has grown to 54 company-owned stores with a dedicated following.
It’s a company that resists rapid expansion, despite pleadings from migrating admirers to expand beyond its two-state market. As Food & Wine magazine trumpeted last year, Biscuitville “needs to be everywhere. … It’s ridiculously good.”
“My father took his grandmother’s recipe and ran,” says Burney Jennings, 54, Biscuitville’s second-generation CEO since 1996. “We’ve been in a slow expansion mode ever since.” He started mopping restaurant floors and cleaning restrooms at 16. (Maurice, 83, is retired.) “We think we’ve practiced sensible growth, opening stores in our footprint where we’re known,” namely central North Carolina and southern Virginia.
The Greensboro-based chain is a speck on the fast-food breakfast landscape: Charlotte-based Bojangles’, which started two years after Biscuitville in 1977, is publicly traded and boasts 764 restaurants in 10 states. Hardee’s, started in Rocky Mount in 1960, advertises its “made-from-scratch” biscuits at nearly 2,400 locations.
To be sure, Biscuitville’s restaurants serve up a bunch of biscuits: More than 40,000 are sold daily. It’s just that many outsiders see a bigger opportunity. Jennings says he fields four to five calls or emails a week from inquiring suitors or investors. Because of the volume, he’s stopped responding. He doesn’t plan to sell or franchise.
“When you franchise, you lose control of quality,” says Jennings, a 1987 graduate of Elon University who’s also a trustee. “People like it that we’re locally owned instead of some big conglomerate.”
The downfall for many regional restaurant chains is expanding outside their traditional territory, says Edward Karabedian, an Orlando, Fla.-based industry consultant. “They need a unique take on products like biscuits or burgers and a unique look with their restaurants — one they can replicate across each unit. And they need to kill it with customer service.”
Plans are in the works to add four Biscuitvilles this year, including one under construction in north Winston-Salem. The company is targeting Fayetteville, the Triad and the Triangle for future expansion. Growth in the Charlotte area is a few years off, mostly because of high land prices, Jennings says. It operates two restaurants in the state’s biggest metro area, in Salisbury and suburban Indian Trail. The company also seeks nontraditional sites, including the Biscuitville opened on Elon’s campus in 2013.
An eight-member board that includes four independent directors can fire Jennings “if I’m not doing a good job,” he says.
Jennings is laying the groundwork to keep Biscuitville in the family. His oldest son, 29-year-old Blake, joined its development office in February. Still, an outsider may run the company one day. “There are plenty of examples of successful private companies operated by nonfamily members,” Jennings says. In March, he named Kathie Niven president, filling a post that had been vacant since the abrupt departure in September 2016 of Jim Metevier, who had joined the company a year earlier. Niven has been with the company since 2011, most recently as chief brand officer.
Like many companies that saw sales dip when the economy soured in 2008, Biscuitville dug deep in self-reflection, though it didn’t close any restaurants. Jennings hired Bellomy Research of Winston-Salem to interview 30,000 customers in 2012. They found many liked the food but felt the restaurants had become outdated. Younger customers said the food lacked spice.
“It was time to take it up a notch,” says Biscuitville spokeswoman Kelly Swindell. “The brand was perceived as old-fashioned. You know, ‘Oh, that’s where Grandma goes.’ So we wanted to engage new guests — and keep Grandma coming, too.”
In 2014, Jennings launched a $15 million rebranding campaign that touts Biscuitville’s penchant for freshness. Marketing, design and research firms in Greensboro, Raleigh and Winston-Salem worked on the project.
Thirty-eight stores have been remodeled; most of the others will get the new “modern farmhouse” look this year, with metal roofs, shiplapped walls and floor tiles that resemble reclaimed wood. Ceilings are sky blue, like the color Southerners paint their front-porch ceilings to ward off evil spirits and insects. Metal dividers separating comfy seating areas mimic a tray of biscuits.
The company kept its familiar gold-and-brown rolling-pin logo but added a tagline: “Fresh Southern.”
“It’s all about being local and authentic and engaged with your community,” Jennings says. “A refreshed look is a sign of healthy growth.”
It’s also about selling biscuits. The campaign has helped drive annual sales up 40% over the last seven years to more than $1.4 million per restaurant, he says. By comparison, Bojangles’ 764 stores, which stay open about twice as many hours per day, average about $1.8 million annually.
After focusing on breakfast for 50 years, in 2014 Biscuitville hired California chef Andrew Hunter, who once worked for Wolfgang Puck, to help develop a lunch menu. Only available in 31 Triad units, it includes a “Cackalacky Chop,” a fried pork-chop biscuit topped with store-made coleslaw and a sweet sauce that combines spicy Cackalacky Sauce, made in Pittsboro, and Salisbury-made Cheerwine soda.
The company added new offerings, such as biscuits with spicy fried chicken slathered in honey from Golding Farms in Winston-Salem, and seasonal menu items such as the bologna, hash browns and cheese biscuit and the fried chicken and jalapeno pimento-cheese biscuit. Even some low-carb options have been added, including grilled chicken, coleslaw and green beans. The expansion has attracted more lunch diners, though the morning rush still dominates sales, Jennings says.
As part of the rebranding, Biscuitville started emphasizing its local roots and sourcing. A framed chart at each store identifies where the bulk of ingredients come from: country ham from Wilkesboro, pickles from Mount Olive, coffee roasted in Concord and pimento cheese from Pawleys Island, S.C. And the biscuit flour? It’s milled and blended exclusively for Biscuitville at Sanford Milling Co. in Henderson. The weekly 40,000-pound shipment of flour, ground from wheat grown in eastern North Carolina, is not trucked to Biscuitville’s warehouse in Graham until it’s tested in the mill’s lab, where biscuits are baked using the same shortening, buttermilk and rolling pins, says Scott Hartness, a co-owner of the family-owned milling company. “The place always smells like biscuits baking.”
Some things remain sacrosanct, most notably Biscuitville’s 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. operating hours. Maurice Jennings began closing at 2 p.m. in 1982, concluding that dinner was too expensive and too much trouble to keep the food hot and fresh, his son says.
They haven’t messed with Nanny’s recipe, either. In plain view of the dining area, a certified “biscuit boss” with several weeks’ training mixes, rolls, kneads and cuts the dough of flour, shortening and buttermilk and runs biscuits through an oven set at more than 400 degrees. It’s all done behind large windows with an overhead mirror for customers to watch up close or from their seats.
Biscuits are baked every 15 minutes. “It’s all about fresh,” says Monise Hammond, who manages the Indian Trail Biscuitville. “If guests can see you making the biscuits, they know what they’re eating just came out of the oven.”
Biscuitville’s relatively small size allows for lots of personal touches. Six mornings a week, Brenda Honeycutt of Indian Trail enters the local restaurant to shouts of, “Hey, Miss Brenda!” as she hugs each employee. She orders a bacon biscuit, sweet tea and a six-pack of bone-shaped biscuits that she brings to the nearby dog kennel where she works. At 78, she says she’s made biscuits all her life, but she “can’t ever make them like this. They just melt in your mouth.”
David Kluttz, also of Indian Trail, is another regular. He likes how the restaurant fixes eggs any style he wants. He also appreciates the biscuits donated every other Wednesday for a homeless mission sponsored by his church.
“They didn’t even have to think about it; they said, ‘OK, we’ll do that,’” Kluttz says. “They just put a lot of effort into their food and how they serve their community. You’ve got to respect that.”