Web Exclusive | March 2013 | By Tara Zirker

The Phenom Goes Global

Jeff Sinelli is ready to take Which Wich international.

Which Wich is taking its premium sandwich options to global markets.
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Which Wich has come a long way in its short existence. Ten years after QSR put founder Jeff Sinelli on its cover and called him a “branding phenom”—before a single Which Wich had even opened—the sandwich chain is franchising internationally for the first time.

The brand, with its “Superior Sandwiches” tagline, will be setting up shop in Panama, Mexico, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates this year.

Sinelli had just sold his Genghis Grill concept when he appeared on the QSR cover in 2003, and planned to grow Which Wich into a prominent sandwich player. Now that the brand has 224 U.S. storefronts and more than 100 openings scheduled for 2013, the next phase of that growth is to cross U.S. borders.

Sinelli says international markets are ready for Which Wich’s quality and healthier options. “Food as medicine is where the world is actually going, and we want to get there a little ahead of schedule,” he says.

While four partners to date have signed international franchise agreements, Sinelli and company are pursuing aggressive growth and looking for partners in Canada, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and India.  

Now that the brand has 224 U.S. storefronts and more than 100 openings scheduled for 2013, the next phase of growth is to cross U.S. borders.

“We are pretty much expanding south and east,” Sinelli says.  The “chief vibe officer” at Which Wich has big aspirations for international growth. He says he visited 18 different countries last year conducting research for the first stages of global growth, adding that his goal is for Which Wich to become the No. 1 sandwich shop in quality and customer loyalty around the world. Lynette McKee, CEO and managing partner of McKeeCo Services, a foodservice franchise consultancy, says Which Wich has a great chance of doing just that.

“I like what Jeff has done with his company, and after watching him, I’m sure he’ll be crossing all of his Ts,” she says. “[But] companies wanting to expand into other countries need to work with consultants and experts on those countries who can tell you the good, the bad, and the uglies in those areas of the world. They can help you determine if your brand has the potential to succeed.”McKee runs down a list of items that many franchisors overlook when expanding internationally: legalities and licensing in host countries; flow of currencies; cultural differences and compliance (Which Wich, for example, lets franchisees adapt the menu by 20 percent, to account for items like black bean paste in Mexico); support structures; religious traditions; and cultural tastes.

She says all or at least most of a quick serve’s U.S. business should be running on autopilot before leaders consider expansion to international markets, and warns against assuming that the same personnel who handle the domestic side of operations can also handle the international side.

“They’re really two separate departments,” McKee says. “International operations can be an extremely lucrative part of a business, but you just have to be buttoned up.” From communications to operations, Which Wich seems to be buttoned up and ready to go. Sinelli says strong organization and management have helped the brand attain U.S. success. That should help international expansion, too, as will the brand’s developing sustainable business practices.

“Which Wich is getting greener all the time, and we’re starting to lay the tracks for the future,” he says. “Part of our mission and vision statement is to make the world a better place. I don't have the sustainability equation figured out yet, but we work on it every day.” If Which Wich’s presence on social media says anything about the brand, it’s that it has a good shot at gaining a loyal following overseas. The company has an enviable online audience, with 172,000 fans on Facebook and 13,000 followers on Twitter; that’s about 768 Facebook fans and 58 Twitter followers per store (Subway, by comparison, has about 538 fans and 27 followers per store globally).

“We have a very deliberate communication strategy. I asked myself when I first came on board, If Which Which were a person, what would their personality be like?” says Hala Habal, communication director for the company. “All of our messaging aims to be a little funny and witty. We want to put a smile on each guest’s face, and, in the process, let them know what’s going on with our company. And we want to impart that same strategy to our international partners.” Those international partners are critical to the brand’s success, Sinelli says.

“Franchise relationships are no different than interpersonal relationships, like that of marriage, for example. You want to be in it for the long haul,” he says. “You want to be successful, have fun, and, with business relationships, make money.”