Hardee's Food Systems Inc. and Boddie-Noell Enterprises Inc. were the original fast-food businesses in Rocky Mount, N.C. But as the two began to develop into mature, successful companies, other residents took note, and soon other franchise companies began to take root. Most are based on Hardee's licenses, and are linked to the parent company and to BNEI by a kudzu-like web of history and friendships. And most, nourished by Rocky Mount's fertile environment, have thrived.

* Franchise Enterprises Inc. was founded in 1961 by Jack Bailey, an enterprising "good ol' boy" who attended school with Mayo Boddie and later served as Hardee's director of franchise sales. FEI, with 64 units in five states, 2,467 employees, and annual revenues of about $50 million, is now one of the fastest-growing and most aggressive operations in town; it will open or acquire 20 restaurants this year, and expects to double its volume within two years. Although he eyes Boddie-Noell with some envy, as well as respect, Bailey remains a close friend -- he and Mayo are "duck-hunting buddies." The same is true of many of his employees: Fred Tharrington, senior vice-president of development for FEI and Cleve Cherry, vice-president/legal, are regular guests at the "roundtable" breakfasts hosted by Nick or Mayo at Carleton House, the Boddies' motel and restaurant. "The hamburger fraternity is a pretty close-knit group," observes Bailey.

* Guardian Corp., once the largest owner of nursing homes in North Carolina, made the switch to fast food in 1977. Years of rubbing elbows with Hardee-related friends had set Guardian's executives thinking, but it was a visit by Carleton Noell that finally prompted a decision. "Carleton spent most of an afternoon telling our board about his success with Hardee's," recalls Fred M. Dunstan III. "He was the key to our getting involved." Once Guardian had become a franchisee, BNEI continued to assist, sharing its building-design and equipment expertise. Guardian now operates 20 units, employs 650, and has revenues of $18 million a year. Dunstan and Guardian president Leon A. Dunn attend the same church -- St. Andrew's Episcopal -- as Spruill Bunn, Hardee's president; so does Jack A. Laughery, chairman of Imasco USA Inc. When Imasco Limited of Canada bought up Hardee's in 1981, Imasco USA became the franchisor's parent company.

* Pearsall Operating Co. operated several Howard Johnson's restaurants before it became involved with Hardee's in 1979. It now oversees a miniempire made up of some 18 Ho-Jo's, Hardee's, Pizza Transit Authorities, and Travel Worlds (fast-food, gas, and gift shops), which all told employ 600 and have annual sales in excess of $10 million. "We're not nearly the size of our bigger brothers down here in Rocky Mount," confesses president Richard Y. Tharrington (no relation to FEI's Fred Tharrington).

* Wade Cary Enterprises Inc. is the smallest of Rocky Mount's major franchise companies, but it has a pedigree as fine as any. It is headed by Gerry Gardner, the brother of Hardee's cofounder James C. Gardner. Gerry bought his first Hardee's franchise, in Clinton, N.C., in 1966, and has since parlayed it into a string of seven. Gerry and Jim, who was lured away from Hardee's by politics (he served a term in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1967 to '69) are also principals in Gardner Foods Inc., which is now developing a series of barbecue restaurants.