Kevin Griffin would grab a guitar and test a new tagline, or vocalize a possible hashtag. As they say in the music world, it’s not about what’s grammatically or logically best, but what sings better.
What does this have to do with a 500-unit sandwich chain? Believe it or not, everything, says Jeff Sinelli, the CEO of Which Wich. On January 24, Sinelli and some members of his team held a “studio session,” with Griffin, the lead singer of Better Then Ezra and songwriter Sam Hollander, who has written and produced 21 U.S. Top 40 Pop Hits.
As for why Sinelli and Which Wich would set up such a meeting, the brand’s CEO, who also calls himself its CVO (chief vibe officer), says the reasons are obvious, even if nobody has thought of them before. Maybe because nobody has thought of them before, actually.
“Gosh, it’s everything from pop culture to current events to just looking to get the edge in business while others are bringing in the same old playbook with chefs and restaurant executives and consultants,” he says. “I’m going a different path. And when you take a different path you get a different result that can be exponential.”
Sinelli is no stranger to this different path. He’s an executive who prefers a company uniform to a suit, and who travels across the country holding “Vibe Visits” to better understand his employees. He also has a phone loaded with music that Which Wich’s Vice President of Corporate Communications, Hala Habal, describes as “eclectic. He’s definitely an equal opportunist as far as genres,” she says with a laugh.
“I like to say that I’ve get friends from bums to billionaires and my musical taste is no different,” Sinelli says. “It’s from the street performer all the way up to the symphony orchestra. It spans spectrums and I find inspiration in all.”
Late in 2016, Sinelli and his wife, Courtney, were attending an event where Griffin, who has also written handfuls of hits for other artists, including Taylor Swift, Train, Sugarland, and the Barenaked Ladies, was speaking about the creative synergy between different fields of business. Mainly, how the process of writing a song is not so different from developing corporate infrastructure.
Naturally, this out-of-the-box thinking struck a chord (no pun intended) with Sinelli. He approached Griffin and soon discovered that the music star was also a big-time Which Wich fan.
“As we started to get to know each other, light bulbs started to go off. I said, ‘What if we could take our industry—hospitality and restaurants—and get inspiration from the music entertainment industry to create a better product,” Sinelli says.
They set up the session in quick response. What went on in that room at Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica, California, left Sinelli with “more ideas than I’ve had maybe in my first decade at Which Wich,” which is truly saying something.
By the age of 40 Sinelli founded three restaurant concepts and hit it mainstream in 1998 with Genghis Grill. Which Wich opened its first store in 2003 in Downtown Dallas and started franchising two years later. The buzz has been building ever since.
“At the end of the day, a restaurant is just a collaboration of creative ideas to attract a consumer,” he says. “And I’m going a different path to get a different result. Because the results that are out there just don’t get me out of bed in the morning. What gets me out of bed in the morning is something different. And sometimes music can be a real influencer whether you’re working out on a bicycle or you’re walking to a restaurant. It really puts a rhythm and cadence in your step or in your feeling.”
As for the collaboration with Griffin, Sinelli figured, “We had nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
And what was gained? Sinelli says fans of the brand will see the results unfold in 2017, a year he’s dedicated to growing Which Wich with a deft musical touch.
The meeting covered everything from décor to the overall feeling of the restaurant to naming sandwiches.
“There are so many similarities,” Griffin says. “We just had a creative session with Jeff and some members of the Which Wich team, and it was like a track listing. It was looking at the sandwiches. When you go into Which Wich there are 10 sandwiches. It’s like the 10 songs on a record. When you’re making a record, each song has to check a box. Do we have the single? Meaning, do we have the sandwich everybody likes? Do we have the niche song for our fans who like our earlier stuff? Yeah, we got that. Maybe that’s a vegetarian thing on the menu. Really, it’s not that big of a leap.”
Griffin was equally inspired. He says he eats at Which Wich all the time with his twins, and found it enlightening to see the curtain of a thriving foodservice operation peeled back.
“Who would have known there would be such a connection between rock and roll and sandwich making?” he says. “… From a song to a lyric to a beat to a production style, those are things that apply outside of music as well.”
Think of it this way, Sinelli says. Especially in today’s world, where streaming music makes switching and picking songs as easy as swiping a finger, artists have a very small window to impress their customers. The same is true of diners looking for a sandwich during their lunch break. What can you do to get that hit “single” to keep guests tuning in?
“If it looks good and it sounds good, there’s a chance that it is good, and as it comes out of the mouth, so it can come back into the mouth,” Sinelli says. “It’s kind of like when you hear a song. You know how certain songs are stickier than others and you can’t get them out of your head? There’s an art to that. We feel like there’s no reason that can’t translate into naming conventions, branding, down to the names of sandwiches on the menu. The way that it flows off the tongue should be very much like a song.”
In Which Wich’s stores, there’s a radio station custom to the brand playing everything from 90s hits to country music. Habal says it speaks to the diversity and relevancy of the brand, which follows its CEO’s lead when it comes to staying ahead.
“It’s part of our company intrinsically,” she says. “To know Jeff and work with Jeff, that idea of constant innovation and constant disruption is to grow with your fans and stay relevant. We’re sitting in 2017. Things happen very much in the now. You can’t sit on your laurels and sort of just coast.”
There could be more collaboration ahead as well. Sinelli says Which Wich is looking into connecting with Griffin’s Pilgrimage Music Festival. The event, held in Franklin, Tennessee, and in its third year, recently announced that pop superstar Justin Timberlake signed on as a partner and producer.
Although it’s in the very early stages, Sinelli sees this as an opportunity to unite two audiences and produce a “multiple effect.”
“It puts Which Wich almost in the same universe and connectivity [as the musicians]. We’re reaching a broader audience, because we’re open to tapping into the creativity of the music industry, the entertainment industry, the medical industry, and I can say it’s working,” he says.
Griffin says it all comes down to the “playlist lifestyle.” The idea that consumers, whether in music or foodservice, can choose and customize their choices, is an idea he believes runs parallel across the industries.
“If you look at the menu of Which Wich, it’s eclectic. You can go a lot of different ways,” he says. “If you look at someone’s musical playlist … it’s not just one type of music. It’s a lot of different things. We like the idea of a playlist lifestyle and how do we extend that potentially to Which Wich and us working together? The sky’s the limit on things we can do on how to grow that, and it’s really exciting.”