Look, I’m as anti-corporation and overspending as Rev. Billy and The Church of Stop Shopping as I hate how the big superstores are wrecking and sapping the character out of small town America and treating their employees like slaves and outsourcing labor to underpaid poverty-stricken villages. However, there are a handful of Southern-based food corporations that are just plain doin’ us proud and that, frankly, I don’t ever want to live without.
Now, the obvious go-to Southern corporation is a little mom-and-pop company called Coca-Cola you may or may not be familiar with. Oh, good lordy, I’ve never seen a group of people so excited to scream their name repeatedly across the globe for the sake of indoctrination (well, other than Disney… and McDonald’s… and America… but still!) and, honestly, the marketing has gone from cute and innocent to outright ridiculous. For example, if you should ever have the time/money you’d like to dump in a sewer, you may want to visit Coca-Cola’s museum, located in the beverage’s native town of Atlanta, Georgia. There, you’ll learn about the “rich history” of this admittedly delicious drink and be exposed to more hyper-sentimental advertising than you can possibly imagine. Coca-Cola proudly shows montages of their archived ad campaigns, where they subtly claim to have inspired greatness, unified cultures and genuinely changed the world for the better since their founding. You’ll see images of WWII soldiers coming home from war, being greeted with a Coke at the door and Special Olympians breaking the ribbon at the finish line just before enjoying a fresh Coke and shoeless African children smiling with glass bottles of Coke in their hands and, oh! It’s just so special and powerful and makes you want to buy seven cases and hand them out to new friends on your way back to your car.
Here’s the secret: Southerners aren’t that impressed. I mean, we love Coke and all but we don’t brag about it being part of our culture the way we do with other things. And, yes, Georgians love Coke because it’s part of their specific heritage and it brings a crapload of income to their state but the rest of us just think Coke has gone and gotten “too good for it’s raisin’” and we don’t take kindly to that.
Same goes for Pepsi, although they have more fun in their advertising, so we let them slide.
FUN FACT: In every blind study since the company was founded, RC Cola has beaten both Pepsi and Coke in taste tests. True story.
Let’s get to the good stuff. This particular entry is dedicated to Southern foodie corps in the restaurant realm.
First up is a small company from my original hometown of Burlington, NC. Now, the company isn’t huge, per se, but they’ve far surpassed the multi-million dollar mark and are growing exponentially. If you know of Biscuitville then you “get it”. You’re already wiping drool from your chin and thinking about the sting those flat, spicy sausage patties leave on your tongue. However, the legendary biscuits are an old secret from a family my dad’s parents are apparently close friends with. The story goes that, when the grandmother of Biscuitville’s founders passed away she allowed the brothers a choice: One could have the farm and the other could have her biscuit recipe. (My dad rolls his eyes at this, but it makes for a great marketing angle.) Now, the company owns over 50 restaurants in NC and VA (that are PACKED from 7-10 every day of the week) and has no plans to slow down.
But no Southerner is dumb enough to try to compare Biscuitville with the holy institute of Bojangles. The North Carolina-based company sells roughly 3 bajillion “Cajun-style” spicy chicken breasts on warm, buttery biscuits every year to thousands of Southeasterners who have no idea whether or not it tastes like anything from America’s Cajun community and really don’t even care. While you could treat yourself to a side of “Botato Rounds” (tater tots) or “dirty rice”, you might as well experience real bliss by getting their spicy seasoned fries, which will make you contemplate selling your home/car/children to afford bulk quantities of. Top it all off with a bucket of their award-winning sweet tea (it’s the best fast-food sweet tea out there as far as I’m concerned) and you’ve entered nirvana, my friend. (Silly Buddhists and their silent fasting – don’t they know the same effect can be achieved in a deep-fried-with-a-side-of-sugar-water format?) And, much like sweet tea at an afternoon picnic, a tailgate party just isn’t a real tailgate party without a Bojangles Tailgate Deal (or two) in tow. Kentucky Fried whatwhonow?
Alright, say what you want about KFC and their world domination tactics (they have them in Australia but nobody bothered to tell those poor people what “KFC” stood for. Sacrilege!), they don’t deserve half the credit earned by the illustrious, hallowed Chick-Fil-A. Chick-Fil-A started as a mall-vendor-style franchise and began breaking off into freestanding restaurants… um… sometime. Anyway, now they have some 1,500 restaurants in 38 states and are only growing, slowly but steadily. Chick-Fil-A makes the best effing chicken sandwiches you will ever experience in your whole life, with chicken coated in a secret mix of spices and flour, fried and laid atop two signature pickle slices between two freshly buttered buns. Naturally, they offer this chicken in nugget form, although the chicken strips are made by soaking the chicken in buttermilk overnight before fryin’ ‘em up the next day. Pair this with their monstrous waffle fries and a giant lemonade and it just may be the best day of your life. (The lemonade is all freshly squeezed by hand, by the way. I know this because I used to do it. See the next FUN FACT below.)
Chick-Fil-A is run by the single creepiest-looking old guy you’ll ever see in your life, who likes to boast about his generosity and altruism a LOT. Much like Coca-Cola, the company looooves for customers to believe that they’re the patron saints of the South, giving to the needy, sending college kids to school, building summer camps for special needs kids, etc. And, sure, they do some charitable work but, more often than not, their loud self-promotion far outweighs the progress or impact they actually make. (For example: In order to earn the Chick-Fil-A scholarship – $1,000 – a high school employee must have worked at the restaurant for 30+ hours every week for at least a year AND must have a 3.5 GPA… which is – of course – impossible if his/her life is being monopolized by working at a fast food joint for $6 an hour.)
Oh, and Chick-Fil-A has also had this ongoing ad campaign that involves cows pleading with the public to “EET MOR CHICKIN”, in order to spare their bovine hides from human consumption. Sure, it was an adorable concept in 1995 when it first launched, eliciting microscopic chuckles from those who noticed, but the humor flew the coop (see what I did there?! hilarious!) some 10 years ago and now it’s just painful to deal with, like a 6 year old who milks a joke (again! I’m on fie-yah!) until you want to lock them in their rooms for the afternoon. (I guess they’re beating the dead cow on this one. Ba-ZING!)
FUN FACT: My first part-time job was working the drive-thru at a Chick-Fil-A across from a whorehouse, just a few roads over from Ocean Blvd. in Myrtle Beach, SC. And I highly recommend you never ever eat at that one, as the poor management lead to a group of guys bleaching their hair over the food prep station one night, breaking into co-ed fights over the fry station/in the freezer/in the back office, and a whole array of other unspeakably revolting acts that happened routinely. (I’m really not exaggerating.) The rest of the Chick-Fil-A’s in that town are manned by another guy who’s impeccable with his managerial tactics, so those places are safe.
Oh, and once when I worked there, a male stripper asked us to borrow our cow costume for a new routine he had in mind. We said “Um, how about no.” and men in cow costumes have bothered me ever since.
Southerners are not completely obsessed with the varied art forms of preparing fried chicken, however. Sitting humbly off hundreds of truck stops across the Southeast, Waffle House is one of those Southern staples that elicits feelings similar to those associated with that one weird cousin you have who doesn’t bathe every day and brings questionable company to family gatherings. (Or, in my family: me.) I believe one stand-up comic [whose name escapes me at the moment] really hit the nail on the head when he described Waffle House as “a truck stop bathroom that serves food.” Don’t get me wrong; the place has substantial breakfast foods and can whip up a mean omelette but nobody will ever stumble in there for a fine dining experience or even a classy Sunday brunch. Everybody knows that Waffle House was established for the delight and convenience of truckers and drunk people. This point is vindicated by the fact that the restaurant’s menus include illustrations for those unable to enunciate their orders.
However, no matter how sober, fatigued or starving-and-desperate you are when you find yourself in one of the 1,600+ Waffle House’s in the U.S., you’re never going to leave without having experienced the franchise’s own brand of magic. Of all the great Southern corporate restaurants, Waffle House is unique in its ability to display the most character and authentic flavor of Americana. Despite the industrial, sterile, hard lines and black-and-white tiles of the diner, Waffle House brims with color, brought in fresh by the incredible diversity of those who eat there. I don’t know why there’s a website dedicated to the freak show that is Wal-Mart clientele when there isn’t one for Waffle House. At Waffle House, there is an equal level of insanity but with a few ounces of Shady stirred in. You’re not likely to see anything too crazy in the morning hours but, after nightfall, any Waffle House in the country becomes a blossoming hub of ethnographic exploration. There is no singular demographic for the late-night Waffle House customer base. You may see a pimp with three of his… um… employees sitting at a booth right behind four middle-aged women with towering hair and Day-glow eyeshadow getting coffee on the way home from their Baptist Women’s Trio rehearsal. Truckers strike up optimistic conversations with strippers who are just off the clock or drunken sorority girls whose dates have gone to the bathroom for a suspiciously long amount of time. The real party begins when someone has the courage to walk up to the diner’s jukebox and play one of 12 Waffle House-themed ditties that nobody will ever learn the words to. Yes, if you want a thorough study of contemporary Southern humanity, don’t waste your time doing field work going door to door in small rural towns; just pick out a corner booth at their town’s Waffle House a little before dusk and wait for the magic to happen. And feel free to enjoy the coffee refills while you’re there.
FUN FACT: Waffle House sells more steak than any other American restaurant franchise. I don’t know how I know this.
I would be written out of my family’s will and cast out of society if I forgot to mention Krispy Kreme in this article. Simply put, Krispy Kreme doughnuts are the second best thing God has ever given us.
As I’ve mentioned before, the only time you should really be terrified of Southerners en masse is when the Hot Doughnuts Now sign flickers to life when you’re in traffic. Like a beacon of rapture and acceptance, the glow acts as a homing device for anyone within 4.39 miles of the restaurant, signaling to Southerners that the time for joy is now! Happiness and fulfillment is just a few quarters away!
The Krispy Kreme formula is a simple one: fried dough + sugar = magic. The empire started in the small-ish city of Winston-Salem, NC in the late 1930′s and, while you’d think that there would be dozens of similar corporations, somehow Krispy Kreme was the one that created The Perfect Doughnut.
At some of the older restaurants you can see the doughnuts being made, although I should warn you, it’s both an erotic and spiritual experience, which may be disruptive to anyone who isn’t fully stable and prepared for such a disconcerting event. You can watch an endless stream of circular dough float through a canal of oil, being gently rotated by loving, angelic automatic arms and then bounding up onto a conveyor belt where it bounces along toward a cascading curtain of glaze, shimmering in the early-morning sun. I’ve been brought to tears by the majesty myself.
FUN FACT: There’s actually a Krispy Kreme museum, by the way. I believe the theme is “Heaven: Behind the Scenes”.
In the last few decades, Krispy Kreme has really taken off and is now an international franchise, much to the amusement and slight smugness of Southerners.
A few years ago Southern writer Celia Rivenbark wrote a hilarious diatribe about how KK has gotten too big for it’s britches and is now just another trendy accessory seen in the hands of celebrities, not unlike the pocketbook poodle or windshield-sized sunglasses. She balked at the audacity of the company to put reheating instructions on the side of the box, declaring, “Reheat?!?! Everyone knows you don’t reheat Krispy Kremes! You eat them at the cash register while you’re fishing change out of your pockets and trying not to burn your fingers!” (If you’re Southern and you’ve done that, clap your hands. ::clap! clap!::)
But, unlike Coke (or “Ko-Koler”, depending on how far South you are) Krispy Kreme is still something that we cherish and proudly call our own here in the South. Maybe it’s because the company isn’t claiming to be saving the world – although it very well may be – or maybe because it hasn’t sold out and tried to change its image to something more relevant or maybe it’s because eating there makes us feel like we’re getting a hug from God, but, whatever the case, we take pride in being the people that are giving the world the gift of The Perfect Doughnut.
And, while their coffee may be pretty great, no self-respecting, moral Southerner would ever admit to enjoying Dunkin Donuts as anything other than a last-resort substitute.
A lot of Southerners have been screaming that “The South Will Rise AGIN’!” for decades, but nobody else expected us to come up so stealthily. We’ll call America ours one day as we slowly climb toward world domination, one Waffle House at a time.
NOTE: Anything that didn’t make the cut wasn’t important enough (in my opinion, of course, ’cause I write these) to qualify as part of the Southern corporate culinary canon. Oh, I know there are some great ones out there but I don’t have time to get into specifics; I need to educate the outsiders on the imperative knowledge before their attention wanes. Maybe if this series goes on long enough I can incorporate some of the smaller companies. We’ll see.