One to Watch: Jake’s Wayback Burgers

    Check out this growing retro burger concept.

    One of the first things John Eucalitto and Bill Chemero learned when they partnered with Jake’s Hamburgers founder John Carter to form Jake’s Franchising LLC in 2009 was how many Jakes there were in the world.

    “While negotiating and discussing Jake’s Hamburgers, there was a trademark issue,” Eucalitto says. “We decided that since we were going to grow nationally and potentially internationally, we needed to get a registered trademark, and there were a lot of other Jakes out there.”

    So Carter, who founded Jake’s Hamburgers with a single restaurant in Newark, Delaware, in 1991, asked his customers what they would name it. Some 2,000 names were suggested, and the eventual winner was Jake’s Wayback Burgers.

    The original Jake’s Hamburgers began growing a few years after the first location opened near the University of Delaware, and by 2002, there were eight corporate stores.

    In 2003, Carter decided to start franchising, but it was slow going until Eucalitto and Chemero, both formerly with Edible Arrangements, got involved.

    Since they arrived, the number of franchise units has grown to 27. Existing Jake’s Hamburgers are being converted to Jake’s Wayback Burgers, and new units are opening up and down the East Coast.

    Jake’s Wayback Burger

    President: John Eucalitto

    Headquarters: Cheshire, Connecticut

    Year Started: 1991

    Annual Sales: Undisclosed

    Total Units: 29

    Franchise Units: 27

    Eucalitto describes the décor of Jake’s as harkening back to the 1920s and ’30s, with red-barn-board wall panels, pleated stainless steel, and old marble and butcher-block counter tops.

    “We wanted it to look like it was from the time when burgers were first introduced to the country and every drug store had a luncheon counter,” he says. “We want all customers—from the elderly to young kids, white collar to blue collar—to be comfortable.”

    Comfortable goes beyond the atmosphere. With a menu of burgers, hot dogs, milkshakes, and six sides, Jake’s is all about comfort food.

    “Everyone talks about french fries, about how to make them better,” Eucalitto says. “We decided to expand the choices.”

    At Jake’s Wayback Burgers, customers can get regular fries, cheese fries, or chili cheese fries. If that’s not enough choice, there are also onion rings and fresh-cut potato chips.

    “We have thick-cut, beer-battered onion rings,” Eucalitto says. “People in the Northeast really love onion rings.”

    The onion rings are made from a proprietary recipe. They ship to stores precut, battered, and frozen. Similarly, the beef for the burgers at Jake’s Wayback Burgers comes in prepattied.

    “We do fresh beef, and up to 18 months ago we pattied our own, but now we have it premade into balls at our specified weight,” Eucalitto says. “That way no one is touching it and we avoid food safety problems that can occur when a restaurant tries to do too much.”

    The fresh-cooked potato chips are served hot, and Eucalitto says they are experimenting with different seasonings and plan to roll out a barbecue-seasoned variety soon.

    As for cheese fries and chili cheese fries, the toppings vary by region. “In Philly we use Cheez Whiz, but in Connecticut it’s shredded cheddar,” Eucalitto says.

    Hot dogs, which account for 6 percent of the chain’s business, get dressed differently depending on the region as well. A hot dog “all the way” in North Carolina is topped with coleslaw, made in-house, with fresh cabbage, vinegar, salt, pepper, and spices.

    While coleslaw is not available as a side, chili will make its way off the dogs and fries and into a bowl come wintertime.

    “Everyone asks for soup in winter, which can be difficult to deal with, but we already sell chili,” Eucalitto says. “Our chili is not regional, but it’s been accepted everywhere we go, so we’re coming out with our own proprietary chili that we can sell by the bowl in winter.”

    Milkshakes are a year-round specialty of Jake’s Wayback Burgers.

    “We use whole milk and hand-dipped ice cream,” Eucalitto says. “We serve them in the metal tins if people are dining in. They are a big part of our business.”

    Every month, Jake’s Wayback Burgers features a “Shake of the Month,” in addition to its 12 standard flavors. Recent “Shake of the Month” flavors have been root beer and coconut cream.

    Jake’s also promotes a “Burger of the Month.” A grilled chicken sandwich, a turkey burger, and a veggie burger round out the regular menu.

    An average ticket at Jake’s Wayback Burgers is $8.75. That total is a bit higher than an average burger meal, since many orders include a milkshake, priced at $3.99, compared to $1.79 for a soda.

    Eucalitto says the concept utilizes “second-generation space” rather than building from the ground up. That means they vary in size from their 1,600-square-foot prototype, ranging from 1,200 to 2,400 square feet. Typically, a store has about 50 seats.

    Twenty-one Jake’s Wayback Burgers are under construction or newly opened, and 24 more are in the final stages of leasing.

    “Our goal is to have 100 by the end of 2011, and we’ll be close,” Eucalitto says. “Then we want to open 100 a year, so we’ll be over 300 by the end of 2013.”

    Most of Jake’s Wayback Burgers growth will continue on the East Coast, from Delaware to North Carolina, he says, but there has been a sporadic growth to the west with single stores in Ohio, Indiana, and Colorado.