Celebrating the intersection of geography, data, and foodways is one of the founding passions of the Rum & Biscuits blog. Unfortunately, it’s not one we’ve dedicated many posts to thus far. These things take time, and the beast is hungry.
But wait no longer, Rum & Biscuits fam, because we’re dedicating this week’s sole post to just that intersection. And this time it’s for the noble cause of determining once and for all:
Is there an American “Biscuit Belt,” and where is it?
Yes, the humble biscuit, according to Nation’s Restaurant News, was identified in 2015 as one of the country’s fastest growing food items on menus. We at this blog could hardly help noticing lines around the corner at Portland, Oregon’s own Pine State Biscuits, to say nothing of our own obsession with these buttermilk angels, so soft. So flaky.
So with biscuits poppin’ across the nation, is it simplistic in this day and age to write them off as a distinctly regional delicacy, forever For the South, by the South? Or has the American Biscuit Belt shifted and stretched?
We decided we’d be the ones to find out, in the true Rum & Biscuits way: with data, and data visualization. So let’s get cookin’.
When you wake up in Biscuitville, USA, what are you doing? Well, after your grueling workout regimen and conversational Portuguese practice, you’re obviously thinking about biscuits. Search behavior can be a helpful proxy for general interest here, since they could presumably cover any number of biscuit behaviors, from new recipes to where the best ones in town already live.
Using Google Trends’ Explore feature, we examined 12 months of data for the unspecified search term “biscuits,” for “Biscuit” as a Food search term, and “Biscuit” as a Bread search term. Searches were limited to the United States. From these results, we created a composite score for each state, which ranged from around 30 to 100. The result was a coast-to-coast scar from the Pacific Northwest to the Southeast, with noticeable search in the mid-Atlantic and California. Consistent with prevailing wisdom, however, the highest search indices remained in the South, in West Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. These states all scored composite search indices of 80 or higher.
While compelling, it’s worth noting this proxy does not account for searches for biscuits in the English sense (i.e., cookies, stateside). It would seem to be a negligible population with that search behavior in the U.S., but you wouldn’t guess it from the results we got back on our own queries for this report.
Next we wanted to shift our focus from interest/intent to execution. To be known as a Biscuit State, there would surely need to be some consensus on biscuit quality. To that, we turned to a handful of articles online ranking America’s greatest biscuit restaurants. There were fewer of these articles than you’d expect – Wagwan, Thrillist? – but Food & Wine, USA Today, MSN, and TasteTalks ultimately provided our input.
Two articles allowed for multiple restaurant selections per state; two did not. The number of selections from each article were then tallied for each state to devise a score, which ranged from 0 to 7. Tennessee emerged as the clear winner, with most unique restaurant nominations (3) and a tie for most single-restaurant nominations (4). Most-Nominated Restaurant honors were shared between Nashville’s Loveless Cafe, and Portland’s Pine State, holding it down as always for the PNW.
But critical acclaim does not alone a Biscuit State make. There will inevitably be a skew toward the coastal states and their metropolitan centers, whose chefs – even those from the South – may “elevate” or reinvent the humble biscuit, and whose food and restaurant industries invite the loyalty of many publications and critics on which we’re relying.
To help combat this effect and look at more broad appeal, we leveraged the insight posited by Business Insider in 2016 that a big driver of the biscuit surge has been the proliferation of chicken and biscuit restaurant concepts such as Popeyes, Bojangles, and Chick-fil-A. We are living the proof of this, with two Chick-fil-A’s (first we’ve ever seen in L.A.) opening within 3 miles of our apartment in the span of 18 months.
And so to assess biscuit footprint or quantity across the U.S., we leveraged the proxy of chicken and biscuit chain franchises, pulling counts from the three brands identified above.
Franchise count was limited to U.S. states only. Data was pulled directly from restaurant locations listed on their respective websites (2017), with the exception of Chick-fil-A, whose numbers were pulled from a Washington Post report (2014). If you’re curious, here’s how each stacked up nationally:
- Popeyes: 2,127
- Chick-fil-A: 1,700*
- Bojangles: 757
Counts were then totaled by state to develop a total chicken + biscuit chain franchise count, with Texas emerging on top with a total count of 586. Rounding out the top ten were North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, California, Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Alabama. And only three poor states boasted no chicken + biscuit chain at all: Hawaii, Alaska, and Vermont.
Extending the coastal population centers theory from our assessment of critical acclaim, we couldn’t help but wonder if the sheer mass of states like California, Texas and Florida were skewing the results, and that these states were in fact the outliers of the bunch. These were, after all, the nation’s three most populous states, and conceivably could top the franchise count lists for nearly any major restaurant chain. More intriguingly, though, was the possibility that if population offered a boost to big states, smaller states like those in the Deep South were actually over-indexing considerably on biscuit restaurant quantity, getting us one step closer to our true Biscuit Belt.
To see if this theory held true, we next looked at our number of chicken + biscuit franchises per capita, dividing total franchise count by state population. Sure enough, the theory seemed to hold: southern states soared to the top of the list. Among the top five, one franchise could support as few as 20-25k residents. By this measure, Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium should boast two Popeyes, one Bojangles, and three quarters of a Chic-fil-A (maybe it already does, we didn’t look into it). In California, by contrast, a single store supported six times as many residents.
As suspected, both the Golden State and Sunshine State faded when franchises were assessed per capita. Meanwhile, Texas – being both populous and Southern – remained toward the top of the list.
Biscuit Footprint Overlap
Concentration may have been revealing on it’s own, but looking over each chain’s count by state, we noticed something that stirred the preconceptions from our days spent doing advertising for Casual Dining Restaurants. A number of states owed their total franchise count not to a strong showing from a single over-performing brand, but to two or even all three, and some with significant counts for each. This flew in the face of everything we knew about territorialism in the industry, and brand loyalty in the consumer space. To us, it rang out, “Ravenous Biscuitheads.” And we chased that feeling, with a measure we called Footprint Overlap.
For our most complex formula of the exercise, we developed a weighted score that awarded 100% chain coverage (i.e., presence of all three chains), above average counts for any of the three, and lower franchise-per-capita numbers. This was collectively intended to identify dominance and parity across the board, and devalue states who may have through-the-roof franchise counts for just one particular brand.
The result was a fortified position in the Deep Southeast and Low Country, as Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi boasted only two of the three chicken and biscuit brands.
Also observable, though, was some northward creep, where states like Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania are widely acknowledged foundations of aggressive expansion plans across the board. Now, Southerners themselves are hardly on a Go North tip – in fact, the opposite is true – so what gives?
The prevailing theory is that chicken + biscuit lines are booming as the nation’s fascinations with breakfast, authentic food with heritage, and respites from increasingly healthy lifestyles balloon to obsession. For once-regional chains that are now outpacing former fast food titans, the southern mid-Atlantic states are considered bridges to the colossal markets of the northeast, all while being adjacent to strong holdings in the Carolinas. It’s a trend we can certainly expect to continue, and one that could turn the Biscuit Belt to a necktie in a hurry.
Lastly, we couldn’t help but notice a daunting example of real world biscuit supply and demand staring us in the face. For about a year, prior to their expansion last Fall, one other small fast food retailer out there called “McDonald’s” decided to draw a line in the sand for everyone and divide the country’s breakfast-goers into Biscuit Haves and Have Nots (cuz I’m stuck with McMuffins). Nine states were identified as being biscuit-oriented enough to support the item that the rest of the nation wasn’t ready for. In theory, this is what the market said Biscuit Country was, even without chicken. So let’s layer those folks on, we decided.
So where did all our analysis get us? Are the country’s notions of the biscuit as inexorably southern now outdated as breakfast menus explode and diversify, and every artisan chef from food trucks to Manhattan hotels puts their hot new spin on the classic? Is it still true today that, as one 19th century publication put it, “The difference between Yankee Doodle and Dixie is cold bread and a hot biscuit”? Or has zeal for the biscuit itself spread, like blackberry preserves, across this buttery, flaky layer we call America.
Well, depending where you live, we’ve got either good news or bad news. But surprising news for no one.
Yes, there’s an American “Biscuit Belt” and it’s exactly where you’d expect
When we assessed the average score each state received across each measure of Biscuintess, a mere six averaged in the nation’s top ten: Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. And from there, as one might expect, biscuitdom radiates out, northward and westward, with diminishing fervor.
Interest, quality, and mass quantity are not mutually exclusive; they go hand in hand.
It can not be said that folks without biscuits are the ones anxiously searching how to find them or where to make them. Nor can it be said that three biscuit houses featured on Eater or ordained by Bourdain are a substitute for thirty drive-thru’s that hand it to you before you order, freshly thawed, re-heated, and thoroughly salted. While each category saw unique Top 10’s, search behavior, critical acclaim, and fast-biscuit dominance remained steady across the top five that floated to the top. Which of course means…
Oregon is not a biscuit capital
Much as it pains me to say, as long as white 25-year-olds will wait in line for them, multiple producers of original, top notch biscuits does not loosen up this Biscuit Belt. Biscuit searches in the state are through the roof, which is compelling and makes for a more complicated argument, but there is none of the chain presence that the powerhouse in the South has that ensures statewide accessibility. Not even close, even with new Chick-fil-A’s planned there at the time of publishing. And it’s statewide accessibility that really distinguishes the sentiment “Go to Pine State,” from “Go to the state of North Carolina.”
But expansion is likely
Even if the case for a New Biscuit Belt on the West Coast isn’t there, trends do show a possibility of the Biscuit Belt loosening in the future. A natural progression in line with market momentum is northward into Appalachia and Virginia. Both Kentucky and West Virginia fit the bill with high scores in search behavior, chain presence, and were among McDonald’s first Chosen Biscuit People. Another Thrillist nod in Louisville or Morgantown could have quickly tilted the scales.
Similarly, Virginia was actually getting quite comfortable in our composite Top 5 prior to us correctly weighting interest and quality – both low for Virginia – due to exceptional chain quantity, concentration, and parity. It seems like a natural next spoil of war for a biscuit empire with eyes on DC, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
Shorter trips westward seem just as likely. Louisiana (birthplace of Popeyes), and Texas (most biscuit-franchised state in the nation) both also had a jewel or two in the critics’ eyes. But interest – at least via the proxy of search behavior – didn’t seem to be there. Maybe it was in nearby Arkansas, with the country’s 6th highest biscuit searches. In any case, it seems like expansion in their direction (arguably biscuit’s more traditional, well…bread basket) seems just as likely as anything toward the poles.
But enough of conjecture, now. Let’s get to what you’ve been waiting for:
And the Biscuit capital of the U.S. is…
A tough runner-up was Tennessee. Home of the International Biscuit Festival and slayer of our critics’ choice category, these folks clearly know their way around self-rising flour. And what they don’t know, they’re quick to look up, ranking 2nd highest in our biscuit search index.
Georgia, too, was tough to deny, having birthed Chick-fil-A and, like Tennessee, being one of just three states in the country to have above-average counts for all three major chicken and biscuit franchises.
In the end, though, it can only be North Carolina. The ancestral home of Bojangles ranked in the Top 8 for all categories and Top 5 for all but one. Notably, the Tarheel State lay claim to the most biscuit chain franchises per capita in the country. Only former sovereign nation, Texas, had more shops, which is ridiculous.
In conclusion, this was one fun and exhausting assessment to get to something we all figured to be true. But beyond that, we hope it’s given hope (albeit with a lighter shade of red) to those who might have felt written-off the Biscuit Map completely. Y’all may not have “Louisiana Fast,” for example, but maybe you’ve got some “Seattle Sorry No Reservations But It’s Worth The Wait.” For others, maybe you’ve got that friend in Florida who’s always talking mad noise about their buttermilk game and now you can set ’em straight – you’re crimson, homey, not burgundy, eyyyy!!!
Mostly, though, we hope it’s sparked your appetite. Specifically, your appetite to prove us wrong and go crush some muhf***in’ biscuits right now. Do your state right, and enjoy!