by Kristyn Winch • firstname.lastname@example.org
Ashok “Ash” Dinakaran ’86 knows a thing or two about serving – from being a former tennis student-athlete to providing exemplary service to the customers at his 22 Bojangles franchises across three states. The alumnus’ journey as a business student and tennis star set him up for a successful career running restaurants, which he first got a taste for in Conway, S.C.
Dinakaran came to Coastal Carolina University from India for the opportunity to play tennis at the University. He learned about the school from an opponent he beat during a tennis match in Holland.
“I was playing a tennis tour in Europe as a junior and played with somebody from Coastal’s tennis team,” Dinakaran said. “After the match was over, I asked him, ‘Do you think I’ll have a chance to go to school there and play tennis?’ He said to call Dr. [Marshall] Parker, the associate athletic director and tennis coach.”
He shared his stats with Parker via telephone and was offered a 40% scholarship on the call. While the offer was generous, it was still going to be a challenge to come to America.
“Coming from India to go to school here took a lot for my parents. It was something next to impossible because it was so expensive to go to school in the U.S.,” Dinakaran said.
Upon his arrival in Conway, the tennis team held a round robin practice. Dinakaran beat everyone on the team. “So, I got to play No. 1. It gave me a full ride.”
The first 10 days at CCU presented some challenges for Dinakaran, from finding his way around campus to getting to know his team, classmates, professors, and advisors, and navigating a new country without a car. He said, “When I look back, I think, ‘How did I do this?’ I managed it. A full scholarship gave me a path where it could work.”
Ash Dinakaran ’86 was a standout tennis player at CCU in the mid-1980s.
Little did he know that one meal would change the course of his life.
Dinakaran’s roommate Sanjay Jayaram ’87, who was also from India, told him about a restaurant that had “very flavorful food,” fried chicken that has a little heat to it, and Dirty Rice, dishes that reminded the students of the food back home in India. The restaurant was Bojangles, a Southern staple.
“This was 1984. I had some chicken and some rice, and I just fell in love with it,” he said. “I was telling my roommate, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be so cool to own one of these?’ And he said, ‘You’ve got to be crazy. You have no clue what it costs.’
“It was a dream for me, ever since that first meal. When you have nothing in your pocket, trying to think that you want to own something, it looks like it’s a big mountain in front of you, right? But I was passionate about it. I was praying about it. And I got it.”
Ash Dinakaran ’86 (right) returned to campus as a guest speaker during the Spring 2022 Wall Connections event. He was joined by (from left) his son-in-law and daughter, Mitchell and Lela Beane; daughter, Sangeetha; and wife, Geetha.
Dinakaran opened his first Bojangles in 2004. While his home base is Elon, N.C., he owns 22 restaurants in three states – Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. “And I’m looking to grow even more.”
Dinakaran majored in marketing at CCU.
Dinakaran owns 22 Bojangles franchises across three states.
“I always had an interest in getting into business,” he said. “It’s all about marketing! You give the people what they want, and then the business you’re in flourishes because of that. I had some great professors at Coastal.”
Balancing tennis and studies, Dinakaran became disciplined with time management, a skill that helped him in his career.
“On the weekends, the team would travel for tennis tournaments,” he said. “On Monday mornings, we’d have class and exams. It kind of forced me to prepare time management. There was no wiggle room. You had to perform on the tennis court, and you had to perform in school. Multi-tasking, time management – that’s what I do every single day at work. Being competitive gave me the edge. I don’t like to be number two in anything. That’s who I am. I want to do my best possible. I bring that same energy to my workplace. That was a good lesson I learned from Coastal. Without the combination of tennis and school, that lesson would be harder to come by.”
The businessman’s passion and drive were passed on to his children.
“My passion, my kids saw that, and they kind of embraced it and knew there was something to it,” he said. “My son, Rajiv, and my daughter, Lela, are part of this journey. They live in Georgia, and they take care of the operation in Georgia. It gives me more legs, and no one is going to care about it more than my son and my daughter.”
Dinakaran prides himself on cultivating a welcoming work environment, and his employee retention rate reflects that. Some of his employees have been with him for more than 18 years.
“I call them all my second family. We are very big on people. We take very good care of them, and my employees are happy to work for me,” he said. “I tell my team this: Building the four walls of a Bojangles is the easiest part. Customers can tell when you have a seasoned employee. The people piece is a big part of the success we’ve had.”
Dinakaran said it’s tough to pick a favorite item on the menu, “but I love our Supremes [Tenders]. I love the rice. Of course, the chicken is awesome. If I’m there in the morning, which I often am when the stores open, my favorite go-to is a sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit. And I love the Bo Rounds. They’re such a unique flavor that nobody else has on the market.”
Dinakaran, who also has a residence in Myrtle Beach, is a proud supporter of the Chanticleer Athletic Foundation. He has returned to CCU on multiple occasions to share his story with business students, most recently as a speaker during a Spring 2022 Wall Connections event. His joy for his work shines through.
“I love what I do. I’ve been in business for 32 years, and 19 years of that is at Bojangles,” he said. “Every day is an opportunity to learn something new. It was a wonderful journey at Coastal, and I tell all my team members about it. I’m always looking forward to coming back. I’m proud to say I’m a Coastal graduate.”