Web Exclusive | December 2013 | By Mary Avant

Philly’s Big Comeback

Cheesesteak chain Wit or Witout finds new ownership, launches franchising program.

Cheese steak fast food chain to grow through new franchising program.
Wit or Witout was named home of Philadelphia’s best cheesesteak by Food Network star Guy Fieri.
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Philly cheesesteak competition may be fierce in the City of Brotherly Love, but one budding concept is ready to rise above the rest and bring Philadelphia’s world-famous product to the masses.

Wit or Witout—as in, “You want that ‘wit’ or ‘witout’ onions?”—is a two-unit, Philadelphia-based cheesesteak concept founded in 2009 by Nicole DiZio, the wife of Philly Soft Pretzel Factory creator Dan DiZio. The brand spent several years under the DiZios’ ownership before being purchased by veteran restaurateur Tony Altomare in March 2013.

Now Altomare and business partner Jim Sahene are developing plans to use Wit or Witout to take Philadelphia’s sandwich specialty nationwide.

“If you go to a cheesesteak place in Philadelphia, it’s dirty, it’s smelly, it’s very greasy. People don’t get service; they don’t get culture,” Altomare says. “And [Nicole DiZio] had this vision of a place where you could come in, sit down, and order cheesesteaks in a warm, friendly atmosphere.”

At Wit or Witout, customers are taught how to order their cheesesteaks Philly-style, choosing from options like flat or chopped meat; American, Provolone, or Cheese Whiz cheese; and, of course, with or without onions. Named home of Philadelphia’s best cheesesteak by Food Network star Guy Fieri, Wit or Witout prides itself on the quality and taste of the authentic cheesesteaks and other items it serves.

“We’re trying to bring not only the great product, but truly a slice of Philadelphia, as we expand across the country.”

Aside from the signature cheesesteaks and chicken cheesesteaks, Wit or Witout’s menu features unique items like Sturgers—a Philly steakburger that combines rib eye and ground chuck—and Philly Fries seasoned with a mixture of Parmesan and crab and Cajun seasonings. The brand also rolled out South Philly Hoagies, a menu item meant to attract more women and health-conscious consumers, a few weeks ago.

“We have a very creative menu,” Altomare says. “We don’t just do a cheesesteak like everybody else.” The brand also stays true to its Philly roots, sourcing products like root beer from Hank’s Gourmet Beverages and rolls from a local Philadelphia bakery.

But while Altomare says the food speaks for itself, the menu isn’t the only special part of Wit or Witout; there’s also the culture and Philadelphia attitude, he says. From the staff’s warm, friendly demeanor to the signage on the walls—featuring phrases like “Yo! Pick up order here” and “Burping is a sign of respect”—everything about Wit or Witout, Altomare says, screams Philadelphia.

For example, when guests walk up to the counter to order, they are greeted with a, “Hey, how ya doin’?”

“It’s not rude, but a nice, warm smile in your face,” Altomare says. “It’s authentic Philly speak with good food. Our mission is good food with great Philly attitude.”

Sahene, CEO of Bruster’s Real Ice Cream, is also serving as the cheesesteak chain’s chief executive. He says it’s the Philly-influenced culture and environment that will help set Wit or Witout apart from other sandwich brands on a national scale.

“We try to pick up on the Philadelphia theme—the employees, the lingo, how we treat our customers,” he says. “We’re trying to bring not only the great product, but truly a slice of Philadelphia, as we expand across the country.”

Though he and Sahene believe they have something special to share with consumers, Altomare says, the brand needed some TLC after he purchased the company in March. The new owner led the charge on a complete Wit or Witout rebrand, as well as a remodel of its unit on Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia. Not only did he help revamp the logo and brand colors and expand the menu to include 14 new items, but he also created new operating systems to increase productivity and profitability. All of it set the stage for what Altomare calls “the greatest comeback in Philadelphia history since Rocky.”

“The first thing we did was rip the whole thing apart,” he says. “We looked at every product in the store. We looked at the menu, the food costs, what they were buying, their scheduling.”

His team also helped create systems for everything from portioning and cleaning to food prep and ordering products. “We’ve given it culture, we’ve given it energy, and we’ve put a whole lot of Philly love into it,” Altomare says.

With two corporate locations in Northeast Philadelphia and another on the way in Hamilton, New Jersey, next month, Altomare and Sahene have decided now is the time to introduce the Philadelphia staple to customers and franchisees across the country. Altomare says the concept will grow slowly and steadily, with a goal of recruiting six to nine franchisees in 2014 and an additional 15–18 franchisees in 2015. Initial franchise territories include Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and New York.

“Although it’s not my first time at the rodeo and I’ve been doing this for 15 years, … we want to make sure we pick the right franchisees that have the same passion and will buy into the culture,” Altomare says. “We’re looking for people that are excited about it like we are, that are very coachable and are also very good at coaching.”

Altomare says Wit or Witout is not only a niche concept with mass appeal, but it’s also scalable, teachable, and replicable for franchisees. In addition to an $8.90 average check, more than 30 percent sales growth over the last three months, and a projected $700,000 AUV, Sahene says, the concept’s two-to-one sales-to-investment ratio presents an attractive opportunity for prospective owner-operators.

Though the brand is actively scouting out potential franchisees, Altomare says, it will continue opening corporate stores, including possible units in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Baltimore.

“Our motto is, ‘One great store at a time,’” Sahene says. “If we start focusing on how many units we have, then you start making bad mistakes and you grow just for the sake of growth.”