Howard is often asked by franchisees and the board of directors if Wingville is a long-term solution. To answer these queries, the CEO notes Wingville’s sales have already been enough to pay back restaurants for the cost of setting it up. If six months from now the product becomes a dud, he can simply take it off the menu because the money was already earned back.
But that doesn’t appear to be the case. Wingville sales climbed 30 percent since stimulus checks were distributed.
“Right now, there's no indication or nothing in the future that would indicate that we would stop,” Howard says. “For us, at some point in time, it may just come down to our ability to operate our brand at certain volume levels and whether or not we can keep up with demand. It’s something that we talked about this week as a team. I mean, we've got to figure out ways to meet the new demand.”
After adding some American stylings to the menu, Asian fare was next. While at a Fast Casual Industry Council meeting, Wow Bao president Geoff Alexander spoke to Howard about his plans to start a ghost kitchen. Howard, an executive willing to try anything, expressed interest and placed a Wow Bao ghost kitchen inside a Fazoli’s. The brand earned about $2,000 in weekly sales—an amount Howard views as entirely incremental since it’s completely different from Fazoli’s offerings.
Howard says Wow Bao carries some cannibalization, so Fazoli’s can’t place the ghost kitchens too close to each other, but the concept has expanded to about 30 company locations. The chain is also in the process of onboarding 20 franchise groups. Howard says the $2,000 in weekly sales is a three-month return on investment. Some locations have earned as much as $6,000 per week.
Fazoli’s is also in early test stages of another virtual brand called Macaroniville. The concept offers a variety of flavors like Meatball Parmesan Mac and Chicken Bacon Ranch Mac, and other items such as pizza and salad. The chain rolled it out to three locations in Lexington, Kentucky, and will soon bring it to the best delivery locations and operators.
“What affords us the luxury of doing these things again is a shoutout to our operations,” Howard says. “Not only worked really hard on the culinary and technology, but we've worked really hard on service and flow through, and time and meal delivery and quality, and our better operators are the ones we take these virtual brands to first. I got general managers right now asking for Macaroniville, and I'm like, ‘No, we're going to follow the same process that we always do.’ But a lot of times, I don't see managers nearly as aggressive as they are now saying, ‘Give me more, give me more, give me more of them,’ when they're already being pushed on sales. We just got the right culture.”
In addition to menu innovation, Fazoli's has upgraded its mobile app five times since May. In terms of service, Howard says the chain took a cue from Chick-fil-A by bringing employees outside with tablets. As a result, orders are taken five cars back from the drive-thru board. Fazoli’s also hands out breadsticks to waiting cars to mirror the dine-in experience, an amenity suggested by Tim Kimmel, director of operations. Despite an increase in drive-thru volume, the model reduced window times anywhere between 20 seconds and a minute.
“It's really been a combination of branding, value, and what we've done with convenience and operations,” Howard says. “We just really hit on all cylinders, and again, that's a big shoutout to my team because we all worked on this together, and my team did a great job.”
As much as sales picked up, unit development has done the same. During the past fiscal year, the chain signed 20 new franchise agreements to develop 50 stores—the most in the brand’s 33-year history. In the past three-month period alone, Fazoli’s signed a record 11 area development agreements, which adds 36 stores to the pipeline.