A fast-food pioneer who knew exactly what he wanted
Family Style Jack Fulk (center) celebrates the 1982 opening of a Bojangles' outlet with son-in-law (and franchisee) Tommy Haddock and daughter Donna Haddock.
Just how good were Jack Fulk's biscuits? The fact that sales jumped 60 percent when he added them to the menu of the first Bojangles' fried chicken restaurant is probably a good indicator. Those biscuits, along with Fulk's recipe for spicy fried chicken, helped Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits grow from a single restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina, to a franchise chain with some 500 restaurants throughout the Southeast. Fulk died on March 30 at 78 after a long illness.
Born in Davidson County, North Carolina, in 1932, Fulk was a high school football standout who turned down several college scholarships so he could find work to support his family. He got his start in the fast-food business in 1971, when he became a Hardee's franchisee.
Fulk wasn't afraid of tinkering with the formula. He introduced items, such as the breakfast biscuit and the roast beef sandwich, that strayed from the Hardee's menu but became customer favorites. "Jack was always in trouble with Hardee's," says Sam Maw, a friend and former manager for Spartan Food Systems, which owned a large number of Hardee's franchises. "They would complain, but after realizing what his sales were, they would reluctantly add his products to the system."
Fulk and business partner Richard Thomas launched the first Bojangles' in 1977. The first restaurant, a walk-in location with no seating, was located in one of Charlotte's rougher neighborhoods. The unpromising location was Fulk's way of validating the quality of his food, says Eric Newman, Bojangles's executive vice president. "Jack used to say, 'With a great location, you don't need great food,' " Newman says. " 'But if you have a difficult location, you'll find out pretty quickly that you better have great food.' "
When the first restaurant proved successful, Fulk began opening more. By the time he retired in 1985, Bojangles' had more than 350 stores. Fulk was a notorious stickler for detail. "He was very much a perfectionist," says Tommy Haddock, Fulk's son-in-law and owner of about 50 Bojangles' franchises. "Every time he came into one of the restaurants, right away he wanted to check the quality of the biscuits. He wanted those biscuits to be the perfect shade of brown."
That attention to detail reflected Fulk's obsession with keeping customers happy. "Jack had an amazing ability to understand his customers," says Maw. "He worked hard to develop a system that would consistently deliver."
Straightforward and at times blunt, Fulk, in his quest for the perfect biscuit, acquired a unique management style that was equal parts carrot and stick. "Jack could kick your ass one minute, and a few minutes later, he'd be giving you a hug," says Haddock. "He had a way of doing both that would make you feel good about it."
Staff editor KASEY WEHRUM has written for Inc. magazine on subjects ranging from the businesses behind professional bull riding to gadget inventor and father of the infomercial, Ron Popeil. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Worth, Budget Travel, and on MSNBC.com. He lives in Brooklyn.