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Which Wich talks innovation—and yolk porn


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Eggwich sandwiches at Which Wich have become an eating and social media-sharing sensation.

Jeff Sinelli has eaten a lot of sandwiches. The founder and CEO of Which Wich has scarfed down scores of them since starting the brand 15 years ago. But he’s recently made a major declaration—he’s just had what he calls “the best sandwich I ever ate.”

That sandwich was the new Brunchwich, one of the latest on the brand’s list of curated sandwiches. Which Wich has a reputation for deep customization, down to the very DNA of the restaurant experience—the sandwich bag itself is the ordering form.

But in recent years, the brand has created a line of curated sandwiches in response to this complicated new era for restaurants where one mediocre experience can mean a lost customer—even if they made themselves a terrible sandwich. What Sinelli calls “some puberty” means some big changes for the teenage brand.

“Right now, we’re 80 percent custom, 20 percent curated. We want to reverse that. We want to go 80 percent curated, 20 percent custom. With that, we’re going to increase our speed and our accuracy,” said Sinelli. “To make a curated sandwich, there’s repetition that will build an accuracy to the program and also speed.”

To that end, the company has partnered with Culinary Edge to help with sandwich innovation. The food consultant has helped brands large and small update menus and innovate to stay on trend. Maggie Holland, an area developer and franchisee with three locations, serves as one of the Which Wich liaisons with the menu makers. She said this sort of innovation is key in a competitive restaurant environment that any day (or hour) could see another viral food sensation.

Banh Mi

The egg makes the difference on a Which Wich Banh Mi.

“I like to see constant innovation. I think people’s attention spans are a lot shorter and there are a lot of creative people and a lot of great restaurants, so you have to be continually innovating because the world is changing so fast,” said Holland.

She said the typical process is defining with the experts where they want to be, then seeing what they come up with. After that, the sandwich idea goes to Which Wich’s newly updated research and development kitchen for any tweaks before it goes to 10 to 14 test locations. Then it’s back to the R&D kitchen for final tweaks and a national rollout.

So how did Sinelli’s favorite new sandwich wind up on the menu? It started with a chance encounter with a “surfer dude” Sinelli met while traveling.

“We found this young guy at a juice bar and he had long hair,” said Sinelli. “He went to culinary school, I dropped out of culinary school. His name was DD, Draper Donnelly, so he had the alliteration like Which Wich.”

Sinelli said one thing led to another and he offered Draper a six-month contract to work in the updated R&D kitchen.

“I said, ‘All I want you to do is work on culinary. I don’t care what,” said Sinelli. “The way I manage is I don’t set a lot of rules, which prohibits the freedom and creativity, so just go and do it.” And Draper did. A couple months later Sinelli said he walked into his office to find a sandwich on his desk. So he tried it, and instead of employing the “spit technique,” meaning take a bit and spit it out, he said he devoured it. “I’ve already had breakfast, it wasn’t time for lunch and I ate the whole thing,” said Sinelli. “So I go up to Draper’s office and I’m like, ‘What was that?’”

It was an early version of the Brunchwich, a decadent sandwich with gyro meat, spicy Harissa mayo, bacon, cheese and a novelty for the brand at the time: an egg with a runny yolk. The taste was key, but that first in a line of eggwiches gave the brand an innovative step into the world of viral food sensations.

Jeff and Courtney Sinelli

Jeff and Courtney Sinelli are partners in Which Wich and in life.

“The No. 1 search term on the internet is porn and there’s a subset of food porn. And in food porn, there’s a subset of that called yolk porn, and people are literally just cutting and watching the ooey, gooey yolk,” said Sinelli. “Food not only needs to taste great, it needs to be visually appealing—the porn aspect—and then it also needs to be convenient.

You’re delivering everything. I said, ‘If we can do this, we can be a game-changer.’”

Of course it had to not just work in the R&D kitchen, but also at the more than 500 Which Wich restaurants around the world, meaning franchisees had to buy in, too.

Holland said when the brand first talked to franchisees, there were a lot of questions—and rightfully so. They had never had to work with raw eggs before and the single cooking device was an impinger oven—a mix of conveyor belt and fan-driven hot air—that cooks the sandwiches.

“I think change is always hard, especially unknown change. So when you hear about something that you’ve never done and raw eggs, it can be scary to people,” said Holland.

The method, she said, is simple. Spray a mini pan and let the egg ride through the oven like everything else. And if it needs another moment, it gets sent through again. While it did add a little complexity, she said franchisees embraced the new platform pretty quickly.

“When they got to see it live and taste it, the initial apprehension went away,” said Holland, noting that a major focus on in-store training ensured that everything went to plan. “It’s been so much fun to be in a restaurant. We serve them in a complete different vessel, it’s a clear plastic container. The people that don’t get it and say, ‘Oh man what is that?’”

Responses like that are what’s driving this new wave of restaurant innovation at brands large and small. It’s not enough to just offer sustenance in this era of intense competition—and especially not in the age of yolk porn.

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