The founder of a successful sandwich company discusses his accomplishments and offers advice to aspiring business owners.
Jeff Sinelli, 48, jokes that he emerged from the womb “naked and broke, sold the umbilical cord to the doctor, and hasn’t stopped since.” In truth, his hustle manifested itself at age 10, when he eked out cash by picking up cigarette butts at his dad’s nightclub. He later began opening clubs and restaurant chains, including Which Wich Superior Sandwiches. It’s known for its customizable offerings and ordering process: Customers mark up a bag with a menu on it; the food is delivered in that bag. Which Wich now has 438 stores, and 2016 revenue was $217 million. Sinelli’s story:
I grew up in a two-story house in Hamtramck, Mich. We lived on the first floor, and my grandparents lived on the second. My grandparents were on a government assisted food program, and both of them worked three jobs to make ends meet. My father graduated from law school, then got into the nightclub business.
When I was 10, he would take me to work with him on Saturdays and put me in the parking lot to pick up the cigarette butts and bottle caps. I would negotiate my pay – enough to cover my candy. That experience taught me that no job is too small.
I went to Michigan State and got a degree in communications in 1990. My senior year, I played professional lacrosse for the Detroit Turbos while going to school. After finishing an MBA at City University of Seattle, I worked for my father, playing bartender, managing his clubs, and playing lacrosse.
Sinelli enjoys the confetti cannon at Which Wich’s Dallas headquarters. Photograph by Nancy Newberry for Fortune
Then I went to Dallas to visit my brother. I could smell the entrepreneurial spirit and decided that was the town for me. At 28, I started a nightclub called the Main Street Asylum. The building didn’t have a roof because of a fire. So I got a great lease and turned it into an outdoor patio bar. It was 1996, and it cost about $100,000 to open. I had about $20,000 in savings and borrowed several thousand from friends and family. I had $80,000 in debt spread over 20 credit cards.
I lived in a friend’s back house, and for a year I sold TV airtime to ad agencies during the day. At night, I’d change in my car to jeans and my nightclub clothes and work at the club.
Since we didn’t have a roof, we had to close the bar in the winter and reopen in the spring. But when we reopened, there was an art festival outside our front door over a four-day weekend, and we made more than $100,000 in beer sales. That cleared the debt, and the business took off.
I opened 10 nightclubs and restaurants over the next few years. Every time I’d make a little, I’d start something else, from martini bars to a hamburger restaurant. I was having fun creating concepts. Then I decided I wanted to find one thing that I could expand and replicate in other cities.
Jeff Sinelli during the opening of the first Which Wich in 2003. Sinelli’s signature brown paper bag was inspired by the school lunch his mother would pack for him in a brown sack with his name on it. Photo: Courtesy of Which Wich
I saw a friend doing Mongolian barbecue. I thought I could do it better by modernizing the concept and branding it. So I sold off everything and started Genghis Grill in 1998. I spent $150,000 on the first restaurant, then more and more to make each one bigger and better. The cash flow was good, and I got an SBA loan.
People started calling, wanting franchises. It wasn’t my intent to franchise, but when you have that many inquiries, you know you’re onto something special. But I found out there are people waving checks who don’t necessarily hold your values. Some guys wanted to do things their way, rather than keep to our franchising system, which ensured that customers had the same experience everywhere. One time I walked into a Genghis Grill and there were unapproved products in the food line. I had to throw them in the trash. You always encounter situations like this with franchisees. I’m always respectful and explain why we operate the way we do, which has been successful.
In 2002, Consilient Restaurants bought Genghis Grill, giving me enough money to start something new. The lightbulb went off after I studied the legacy of sandwich founders like Blimpie’s Tony Conza, Subway’s Fred DeLuca, and Jimmy John Liautaud at Jimmy John’s. I wanted a long-term story like that.
So I started Which Wich and made it franchise-friendly. I designed a logo and passed out business cards at the National Restaurant Association convention. Industry magazines wrote about the concept before we made our first sandwich. My mom used to put my lunch in a brown sack and put my name on it. That inspired our ordering system. Customers would come in, write their orders on a brown paper bag, and the sandwich would be made to order. People read about the idea and wanted to be a part of it.
The first Which Wich store opened in 2003 on Main Street in Dallas. The location had previously been a Subway and Sinelli says he convinced the landlord not to renew the lease. Photo: Courtesy of Which Wich
There were a lot of Subways and Quiznos then, but I thought I could do better. Our first store, in 2003, was in Dallas. I convinced the landlord not to renew his lease with Subway. He knew our history with Genghis Grill and asked what we’d do to be different. I said, “Milk shakes,” and he said, “Let’s do it.”
We expanded across the country, then started going international. Five years ago, I went to India on an exploratory trip but decided the time wasn’t right to open there. Still, I used what I learned and created a system for nontraditional locations. Now we have everything from kiosk-size Which Wiches to 1,700-square-foot locations. Target asked us to build into some of their stores, so we’re currently in nine California Targets.
I learned early on that you need to keep an eye on everything. So I visit our mail room daily to look at what comes in, and I like signing every check. There are so many tangents, from marketing to real estate to operations. You have to have a full understanding of them all.
My Best Advice
Founder, CEO, and Chief Vibe Officer, Which Wich
Have a sense of urgency. As soon as a sandwich bag hits the line, we start making it because we value the customer’s time. We don’t hold people up. We show up.
Never run out …of energy, of your supplies, of anything. We keep our shelves full. It sends the message that the business is well capitalized. You never want to run out of the product that a customer comes in for.
Develop and trust your gut. My three decision makers are my gut, my heart, and my head. You know when you’re making the right decision because your body will tell you. I’m the Chief Vibe Officer because success is all about energy.
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