Like everyone else in the restaurant industry, Which Wich cofounder and CEO Jeff Sinelli spent the beginning of the pandemic searching for a streamlined, digital solution to solve COVID woes.
Eventually, he arrived at a piece of innovation that combines the use of human capital and man-made technology. It's referred to as YellowLab—an in-store ordering kiosk run by remote workers, or virtual cashiers. When a guest approaches the kiosk, the employee receives a notification and proceeds to greet the customer and assist with any questions. When the order process is completed, food is prepared for pickup in the back of house. One of the biggest benefits, Sinelli explains, is that these employees are able to run YellowLab kiosks from multiple locations at once.
But this isn't the only forward-thinking novelty on the horizon for the roughly 250-unit Which Wich. QSR reached out to Sinelli to learn more about where the brand is heading and how it's combatting the latest COVID challenges.
Could you share more about Which Wich’s recent performance, given the inflationary environment?
I don’t think we are alone with the spikes in certain core commodities. We are performing, given these waves of inflation and post-COVID supply chain disruptions. But luckily, due to the variety and breadth of our menu, we have alternatives to market to and highlight in the event of stock interruptions. Additionally, we have decades-long relationships with our strategic partners, whether it’s breads, beverages, distribution, proteins, etc., that have been extremely supportive given their own circumstances.
What initiatives or efforts are being implemented in response to slowdowns in traffic?
We continue to go forward looking for innovative products, such as Cloud Bread, that we can exclusively carry. Like most, Which Wich made a pivot to focus on off-premise sales in 2020, and that continues to be an important part of our business. We put energy into delivery channels and catering. Now, as we see traffic re-establishing in dining rooms, we are also focusing on more ways to reduce overhead, including YellowLab.
Please provide background on the YellowLab ordering system and its purpose?
YellowLab was born during the pandemic because of a personal experience I had with another brand. I found myself communicating by order through a plexiglass screen, mask-to-mask, taking away any sense of human interaction or brand experience. My order was half wrong and half missing. I knew there had to be a better way—so we started working with the largest point-of-sale companies in the world to create a solution where humans could still be safe, but we could communicate without barriers, to ensure order accuracy and a unique guest experience.
How have customers received the technology thus far? What have been the biggest learnings?
People crave human interaction—we saw that throughout 2020 and 2021. The interaction with YellowLab is intuitive. Customers have been using kiosks in the airline industry, banking, and other forms, for over a decade. It’s becoming very second nature to us. One of the founding principles of YellowLab is to marry technology with human interaction. To our surprise, our virtual agents are building relationships with the customers because of the consistency and continuity of the experience. So much so, that we have seen guests stop by and say a friendly goodbye and thank you on their way out the door to the virtual agent.
Has this piece of tech been implemented elsewhere? If so, where, and how are locations chosen?
YellowLab is currently in three brands: Wich! (store prototype under Which Wich), Earth Burger, and Birdguesa Tenders & Tots. We are in discussion with major airlines, other hospitality brands, and some food courts, that find this to be an interesting solution.
Are you able to share quantitatively or anecdotally how the ordering system has helped with labor costs?
A specific example is during off-peak hours, a single YellowLab cashier is managing multiple stores in multiple markets. Where it would normally take three cashiers across the country, we are able to toggle and do it with one. We put a YellowLab in our new version of Which Wich to lead with technology and a new ordering system.
It is no secret that labor is expensive and continues to increase. In order to create labor efficiencies, and having cashiers off-site for better articulation and scheduling, YellowLab now reduces labor and upsell, while providing a better customer journey. The ultimate thing that everyone is looking for is to reduce labor cost. YellowLab is a great solution with that in mind. Having one centralized employee who can work on multiple brands across multiple time zones creates a formatting of YellowLab where that virtual agent can be handled in multiple ways: through a Call Center, with Gig Agents, or Go Direct.
What other pieces of technological innovation are on the horizon?
We are actually very interested in exploring delivery robots and have actively looked at partnerships in that model.
In addition to Cloud Bread, what other pieces of menu innovation are ahead for your company? More plant-based items?
I believe the plant-based space is here to stay. It’s a movement, not a trend. We continue to look at sector disrupters to be first to market with products. I have articulated a goal of having 20 percent of the menu across my concepts featuring plant-based options.
What does unit growth look like for Which Wich currently? What’re you hearing from potential and prospective franchisees?
The brand is turning 19 in December, and we entered international markets nearly a decade ago. We feel like Europe is really prime and we’re hitting the gas on expansion throughout the EU.
Is any work or innovation being completed around a new store prototype?
Which Wich has always been known for its unique ordering system. Working with strategic design firm, ChangeUp, our nextgen store took a digital transformation, while focusing on making sandwiches faster (and more deliverable) in an even more modern environment. We have built and opened the new store prototype, called Wich!, in Downtown Dallas, Downtown Austin, and at premier shopping center NorthPark Center in Dallas this year. These were all locations that existed as Which Wich for over 15 years.