Which Wich is now a 20-year-old brand. Over those two decades, there have been countless highlights CEO and founder Jeff Sinelli can think of, but his mind drifts to the simple things.
Oftentimes, he receives handwritten notes from a child in grade school, similar to what he used to do when he was young. The messages compliment the chain, and Sinelli feels more than obligated to respond to each one.
“It’s a real highlight to really almost like stop and smell the yellow roses along the way when I get those kinds of things,” he says. “The accolades and the international growth and everything’s great. Those are all highlights. But I think it’s the little things sometimes that matter most.”
Sinelli is appreciative of the big moments too. Like the fact Which Wich is eyeing 30 restaurants in the U.K. in the next three years as it launches a franchise system in the country. The company debuted in London’s West End in 2018 and added a virtual kitchen in Shoreditch, a district in the East End of London. U.K.-based master franchisee Rami Awada said his company set up a support system that will allow for a national rollout. He’s offering sub-operators a flexible model, ranging from 500 square feet to 3,000 square feet. Future stores could be a fast casual outlet on the street, a cloud kitchen, mall location, or kiosk. The company is also interested in opening units in airports and rail locations. Awada is looking to sign single or multi-site territories and people inside and outside the food and beverage industry.
In addition to London, Which Wich has international restaurants in Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
Domestically, unit development has been difficult for the sandwich chain. Between the start of 2020 and 2023, Which Wich lost a net of 134 U.S. locations, including 68 stores in 2020 when the pandemic first hit. That brought the chain’s footprint from roughly 360 U.S. restaurants to about 220. There were more than 430 outlets in mid-2018.
In 2022, the company opened eight franchised locations and terminated or closed 50 units. Some of the openings announced this year include Morrisville, North Carolina; Prosper, Texas; Pflugerville, Texas; Huntley, Illinois; Spartanburg, South Carolina; and St. Louis. Still though, Sinelli remains confident about Which Wich’s growth prospects in the U.S.
“Because we’ve been at it for 20 years, we can be real introspective of who we are and what we want to be, and we feel we’re the best custom sandwich, period,” Sinelli says. “And we want to focus on our sandwiches and being better and faster so we can sell more of them in more and more places. There are markets that we have yet to really go into. Major markets like New York City and Miami. Really the whole Eastern Seaboard and New England is prime for us. When we actually serve a nice warm toasted hero product, it’s going to be a perfect scenario. And we started in Texas but we really can do some nice work on both the East and West Coast as far as growth.”
In terms of menu, Which Wich used its 20th anniversary as an opportunity to emphasize its roots as a customized sandwich company. In November, the brand introduced “Bag to the Future,” which features more than 50 options and more than 50 toppings, giving customers the chance to manage their own creations. The fillings range from deli meats to seafood, plant-based protein, and vegetarian options.
“The launch is meant to give customers a moment to do “something special in their preprogrammed world and to explore and to be different,” Sinelli says. The CEO believes there’s something “interactive, romantic, and real genuine” about the guest going down the line and reciting their order.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” he says. “We started out with customized sandwiches with a simple bag and a sharpie, and two decades later, we found a lot of pressures throughout that time to evolve with technology with the kiosk and online ordering and all the things that come along with technology, when in essence, we’re really an analog concept in the digital world. And we found that there’s no need to really do anything outside of the brick and mortar experience with Which Wich.”
Granted, Which Wich still has more than a dozen signature options to choose from, like the Club Wich, Garden Party, Philly Cheesesteak, Za’Wich, Grinder, and Wicked. But Sinelli maintains that the core DNA of the company is customization.
“Otherwise you can just go to a convenience store and get a pre-made sandwich. We’re really about customization and offering that because look, again, you can get great sandwiches anywhere in the world, but you can’t get your sandwich your way in a real sphere of customization with a great taste to now create on top of it,” Sinelli says. “We’ve tried it. We’ve worked with some of the best chefs in the world, and they’re great sandwiches, but nothing’s better than the sandwich you create for yourself.”
Similar to how Starbucks metaphorically owns the color green, Sinelli wants his restaurant to be one of the top brands associated with the color yellow.
“When you see yellow out there, I want people to think, whether it’s a yellow taxi or yellow sports car, ‘Hey, that’s Which Wich,'” Sinelli says. “It’s important to own something and get it in people’s psyche. If you want to maintain the brand personality, it’s all about the brand consistency.”
Yellow, along with red, is one of the most popular colors in fast food because it tends to trigger happiness, so several concepts would love to stake claim to the color.
But Which Wich is becoming a legacy brand in its own right.
“There’s very few brands out there that have had a founder be with it for 20-plus years, which is rare air, and it’s unique to us,” Sinelli says. “I’ve been a part of every decision from founding it to where we are two decades later. And I want to take this brand into its real adulthood of its brand life cycle because I think we know who we are and what we’re best at, and if we just put those fundamentals and use them to our strength, we’re going to have a nice, nice next 20 years.”