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Which Wich Poised for U.K. Sandwich Shop Expansion Under Master Franchisee


Published in Franchise Times.

It’s not easy for an American franchise—or any franchise, for that matter—to make it in London. The global city of more than 9 million people is “almost its own planet,” said Rami Awada, and to succeed in the sophisticated, complex business market takes careful planning—and an intense focus on unit economics.

Awada, who in 2018 opened his first Which Wich sandwich shop in London’s Covent Garden, has seen several U.S. concepts selling toasted subs come and go, including the likes of Potbelly and Quiznos, which he said never found their footing and didn’t have a solid foundation to scale. To avoid that same fate, he’s spent the past few years proving out the Which Wich model, enhancing operations and building his corporate team, all with an eye toward franchise expansion.

“In the U.K., in London specifically, there’s not another big chain making hot sandwiches,” said Awada, founder and managing partner of AAA Investment House and the master franchisee for Which Wich in the United Kingdom. “We’ve made sure the economics are as healthy as they can be and shown the brand can succeed in a tough economic environment. If you have a sustainable model in Central London where high occupancy costs are just one of many challenges, the economics only get better when you consider other markets in the U.K.”

Awada in November launched a national rollout of Which Wich in the U.K. with a short-term target of opening 30 locations over the next three years. Expansion opportunities, he said, exist across Great Britain, and the brand’s “customizable, premium toasted sandwiches” have wide appeal.

The first store reached its performance targets at the end of 2019, noted Awada, as he focused on lowering prime costs, driving store traffic and adjusting the menu to suit local tastes. “Breakfast pots,” which in the U.K. means ingredients such as sausage, bacon and a poached egg on top of either baked beans or a black bean/corn mix, were one addition, and the group also developed a “Quick Wich” program to provide a grab-and-go alternative for customers.

Perhaps most impactful was the creation of a corporate catering program.

Working with major catering marketplaces such as Just Eat for Business, and with its own direct catering channel, Awada said that segment of the business has yielded 200 percent year-on-year growth. Catering, he added, sets stores up to have “a few hundred to a thousand pounds” in sales “before you even open your doors.”

Awada was set to open two more brick-and-mortar stores in early 2020, but scrapped those plans at the onset of the pandemic. It was during that time he “optimized the brand further for franchise success” by upgrading the tech stack to what he described as a “360-degree solution” integrating the point-of-sale system with scheduling, online ordering, inventory management and sales forecasting.

The group also added a virtual kitchen and developed some sandwiches “showing the indulgent side of Which Wich” to help drive delivery orders for dinner.

“In the U.K., the sandwich product has been predominately a breakfast/lunch product,” said Awada, but a delivery-focused menu has extended the brand’s appeal into the evening hours.

He said he and his team, which includes Kevin Todd and Ian Dunstall, former executives at one of the U.K.’s largest hospitality companies, Mitchells & Butlers, along with ex-Greggs sales and marketing director Michelle Young and food and beverage consultant Alison Vickers, have prepared Which Wich to scale via franchising. Awada also plans to develop more company restaurants in tandem with franchise growth.

“We’ve been waiting for this moment for some time, but I wanted to make sure all the elements were there to ensure success,” he said.

Rami Awada, left, Which Wich’s master franchisee in the U.K., with Which Wich CEO Jeff Sinelli at the restaurant opening in London.

Back to the bag

Dallas-based Which Wich was launched by founder and CEO Jeff Sinelli 20 years ago with a focus on customizable sandwiches and an ordering process that directs customers to grab a pre-printed paper bag and, using a Sharpie, tick off items they want on the sandwich. In recent years, a host of supply chain shortages and changing consumer preferences forced it to shrink its sandwich options and implement more technology, but a new “Bag to the Future” menu rollout and marketing campaign is taking the brand back to its roots, said Sinelli.

Even before the pandemic, Sinelli said the brand “got further away from our bag and what made us special.”

“You can get a sandwich anywhere,” he continued. “I’ve seen the 20-year journey and, I’m not trying to romanticize a sandwich and a Sharpie, but that’s our point of differentiation.” The new menu features more than 50 sandwich options and an array of 50-plus toppings to offer customers a selection ranging from top-quality deli meats to seafood, plant-based protein and vegetarian options.

The brand, which internationally also has a handful of locations in Oman, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has seen its U.S. store count decline in recent years, from 404 units at the start of 2018 to 220 by the end of 2022. The closures, said Sinelli, “were logical,” and resulted from a variety of situations including expired leases, operators who wanted to exit and fallout from COVID.

“The stores we have now are solid,” he said. “Where we have a great operator, we perform. You have to have engaged operators who are present.” Which Wich continues to open new domestic stores, he added, and is looking to fill in existing markets. Among the states where its store count is in the double digits are Texas, North Carolina, Georgia and California.

“We’re not going fast and crazy, but strategic and smart,” said Sinelli of new development.

Sinelli’s company, Sinelli Concepts, also franchises a number of other restaurant concepts including Paciugo Gelato Caffe, Birdguesa Tenders & Tots and Earth Burger, along with yoga concept VibeFlow.

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