Jennifer Owen hasn’t stopped moving. For several straight minutes, she has bounced continuously from foot to foot and traced tight, fast circles with her outstretched arms. She pauses briefly to look at the crowd that has gathered on the other side of the glass, shakes her head, and smiles before turning her back to all of us. We all watch as she paces anxiously behind a stainless steel table, bends the brim of her corporate-logo-emblazoned hat, and tugs on the sleeves of her gray T-shirt. Despite the nervous energy, she knows she’s earned the right to be here. She’s won four straight regional competitions, and that string of victories has brought her from Easley, South Carolina to this well-manicured office park on the southside of Charlotte.
Jennifer Owen is here because she can make the shit out of a Bojangles biscuit, and she’s one of eight Bojangles employees who are going head-to-head in this year’s Bojangles Master Biscuit Maker Competition. If she wins, she’ll take home a tasteful glass trophy and $2,500 in cash, and her smiling headshot could appear on a custom-printed store banner or on Bojangles paper tray-liners for the next year-plus.Her twin sister—who also works at Bojangles #705—is in this crowd, along with several more of her coworkers. They’re surrounded by franchise owners wearing identical black polo shirts; other expectant family members in matching sweatshirts with other competitors’ names printed across the back; and a significant number of middle-aged men in polar-fleece vests and Dockers Stain Defenders.
Bojangles has held this employees-only competition for more than two decades. This year, it’s happening in the Research & Development Kitchen at its corporate headquarters, which is equipped with two restaurant-quality biscuit stations, and two identical stacked ovens on opposite sides of the room. For several hours on a spring Tuesday, that room is the Westeros of butter and shortening, with less bloodshed and a more satisfying story arc.Owen is… well, she’s… she’s shadow baking as she approaches her table, twisting her wrist four, five, six times like she’s working an invisible biscuit cutter. The guy serving as the announcer tries to pull a Michael Buffer-ish baritone from somewhere in his own Stain Defenders and asks those of us on the less-stressful side of the glass to “give a big Bojangles welcome” to Owen and Elva Salas, the other competitor in the final heat of the day.
He asks if they’re ready. “I’ve been ready forever!” Owen says.Bojangles restaurants are scattered throughout 11 mostly Southern states and Washington, DC, and all of them lean hard into their “Famous Chicken and Biscuits” slogan. The chicken is good—better than good—but the biscuits are the real attraction. Whether you’re in a Bojangles in Albert, Alabama or Zebulon, North Carolina, regardless of the time of day, regardless of the day of the week, an estimated 80 percent of all Bojangles orders are served with a biscuit, if not on a biscuit.“The whole store revolves around biscuits,” Wes Lark, the winner of last year’s Master Biscuit Maker Competition, said. As his store’s on-site Master Biscuit Maker (yes, it’s an official title) he estimates that he makes roughly 1,000 biscuits during a single weekend shift. “Maybe more. A couple thousand,” he said. “Since last year’s competition, I’ve probably made 100,000 biscuits, and that’s low-balling. I know that I make more than a thousand on a busy day.”
The Master Biscuit Maker Competition should be open to the public, because if you're not staring open-mouthed as the participants meticulously preparing their three pans at lightning-fast speed, then at the very least, it might make you more likely to say thank you the next time you receive your order. (The newer Bojangles locations are kitted out with Biscuit Theaters, so customers can watch through a giant glass window as their biscuits are being made, but when you're starving for a Chicken Supremes Combo, you may not necessarily take the time to fully appreciate the craft.)
Whether they’re rolling dough for today’s judges, or for hungover twentysomethings who can barely whisper the words “Cajun Filet Biscuit,” making a Bojangles biscuit is all about “the process,” a proprietary 48-step list of instructions that produce the perfect biscuit. The competitors, franchise owners, corporate executives, regular employees: they all rely on, and frequently refer to, the process.This contest is really, really about the process. The competitors have five minutes to make three pans of 15 biscuits each, and the clock starts the second that they move the dough from the prep area to their lightly floured work surfaces. Although two people are in the test kitchen at a time, they’re mostly competing against themselves. Two judges shadow each competitor, to watch for speed, efficiency, and quality—and to ensure that they follow all 48 of those steps, in order.“I’ve been pretty much rolling as much [dough] as I can, practicing as much as I can,” Lark said, after he’d submitted his best 15 biscuits to the judges. “I time myself, go against the clock. One thing that helped me was getting everybody in the store to come stand around and watch me so it was kind of like it is here, the pressure and everything.”He’s not kidding about the pressure. When the clock starts, and the judges pick up their clipboards, the atmosphere is surprisingly tense, even on the spectators’ side of the glass. Several people pull out their own stopwatches. The Polar Fleece Man is nervously crunching a mouthful of ice. “This is it,” another man drawls behind me. “This is where the magic starts.”
It’s just past the two-minute mark when Owen slides her first pan into the oven. She speed-walks back to her table, sifts more flour onto the work surface, and picks up a second portion of dough. “She’ll get two extra [biscuits],” Polar Fleece says, to no one in particular. “She’s methodical. No wasted steps, no wasted time. She’s faster than she looks.” The crowd applauds appreciatively when she opens the oven door to push her third pan inside, and we do it again when Salas finishes her last one a few seconds later.After all three pans, and all 45 biscuits, are out of the oven, each competitor then selects the best-looking one and hands it over to a different team of judges, who take them behind a heavy curtain to appraise their color, their height, and diameter, and assess their overall quality. Owen and Salas scrub the flour and dough from their hands, as a corporate photographer glides from one side of the kitchen to the other, trying to get the four remaining pans and the black and red “Master Biscuit Maker Competition” banner in the same shot.Now all of us—the participants, the members of the crowd, and those of us who just want to run through the wall to grab the remaining biscuits with both hands—wait for the judges’ decision. One competitor, his black pants streaked with flour, sighs heavily as he walks slowly toward Polar Fleece. “I could’ve done better,” he says, taking his hat off and running one hand through his hair. “There was just so much shortening in the mix.”
“You know, I asked your mom, ‘Why’s he spending so much time in the dry [ingredients]?’ We thought it was just your strategy,” he responds, and then he pauses.Several seconds pass.“You did fine,” Polar Fleece says, unconvincingly. “It was fine.”
While we wait for the final results, Candice Warner is given the unenviable task of trying to teach me how to make biscuits. Warner is a Georgia-based training manager, who turns store managers like Polar Fleece into… store managers like Polar Fleece who know all 48 steps of the process. “Do you watch baseball?” she asks, as I fumble with the strings of my red Bojangles’ apron. “Because the biscuit maker is like the pitcher. You can’t do anything without the pitcher and at Bojangles, you can’t do anything without biscuits.”
When she’s working with managers, she puts them through biscuit training on their first day. By the third day, she says they’re “usually pretty good at it”—but they’re baking anywhere between 15 and 50 pans a day. “Nobody’s a complete lost cause,” she tells me, because she hasn’t noticed that I’m still trying to tie my apron. (I was also issued a black baseball cap embroidered with a gold “Master Biscuit Maker” logo, and I haven’t been less-equipped to wear anything since I owned a pair of those sweatpants that said “JUICY” on the ass.)Warner went straight into it, explaining the process, demonstrating every step, and somehow staying positive as I hesitantly fumbled with a wet lump of dough. She floured, sifted, scraped, rolled, and cut the first pan of biscuits, and then helped me through the next two. A half-dozen people, including some of the competitors, materialized in the viewing area on the other side of the glass, and the lesson went from being challenging to being straight-up horrifying. Seeing my lumpen balls of dough and my weak attempts to deal with it had to be like seeing a dog walk on its back legs: It’s doing it, but it’s obviously unnatural and clearly uncomfortable.
There are not enough Instagram filters to make my biscuits look presentable, but it’s a testament to the process that they tasted… like a Bojangles biscuit. (I did notice that I was the only person who ate what was on my three pans.)
Every Bojangles enthusiast should have to go through one of Warner’s training sessions—not just because of the satisfaction of biscuit-making, but because it brings you 48 steps closer to appreciating the hard work this job truly entails. Fast food workers tend to be casually dismissed with all kinds of unflattering adjectives, especially when they start vocally fighting for fair wages, but those put-downs largely come from people who haven't waited tables at an understaffed chain restaurant, or worked as a line cook in a hot, crowded kitchen. The service industry, in general, really doesn't get the respect that it deserves.Another hour passed before a round of applause from a back room served as an unofficial announcement that the judges had calculated their final scores. This year, they had a tie. The time on the clock when the third pan of biscuits goes into the oven is used as a tiebreaker—but that was also a tie. So, for the first time, two winners shared the title, and two winners would each go home with an engraved trophy.
One of them was Ricky McQuillar, a South Carolina man who has made it to the final for four straight years. Last year, he lost by a single point. The other winner was first-timer Jennifer Owen. “I know they’re gonna be whooping and hollering tomorrow at work,” she said. “I go in at six in the morning, so this is gonna be fun.”She’s still bouncing on the balls of her feet as she shakes hands with McQuillar in the carpeted hallway. She looks toward the R&D kitchen, which is still lit up, but empty for the first time all day. She shakes her head, turns her back to us, and walks out the door.