Exclusive: Sam Ballas, CEO, East Coast Wings & Grill
East Coast Wings & Grill, a fast growing casual dining buffalo wing concept, has 23 operating restaurants, 6 currently in construction, and 70 plus sold locations throughout the Southeast. The franchise not only caters to the chicken wing lover by offering 75 different flavors of jumbo chicken wings in nine heat indexes, but also serves salads, wraps, sandwiches, burgers, ribs and more, all using fresh not frozen ingredients.
We caught up with Sam Ballas, Chief Executive Officer, who took time to answer a few questions about the company.
How did the Concept get started?
East Coast Wings & Grill got started in 1995 as a small retail spot in Winston-Salem, NC. In 1999 I became an investor and in 2001 we bought out the company and retooled the concept. With a combined 100 years of restaurant experience, we focused on fresh ingredients (many from scratch recipes), and expanded the menu and patron service. We also developed a proprietary process enabling our stores to offer multiple wing flavor variety with a wide range of heat indexes, giving us over 650 combinations of buffalo wings.
For those unfamiliar, please tell us about your food? What is unique about the menu?
Of course, our wings have made us famous. Having won best wings in every community in which we operate, being a National Buffalo Wing Festival first place winner and the Southeast Buffalo Wing Festival first place winner is validation you simply cannot luck into. You have to be on your game. Our menu is extremely unique in the Buffalo Wing sector; we are 97% fresh. Our patrons can enjoy ribs, salads, fresh Angus beef charbroiled burgers, wraps, Buffalajitas (our registered trademark fajita) and freshly prepared appetizers. We have many proprietary sauces and dry spice rubs which enhance the flavors of our food profiles beyond that of our competition. There is no person we cannot satisfy, and we deliver our award winning food in a warm family dining environment.
When did it become a franchise company?
In 2002, we notice a significant increase in sales and began to advertise our brand for continued sales increase, not necessarily for franchising. In the same year, we had someone who was researching buying a wing concept and called us to see if we would entertain franchising. I began the research and process in developing our system. We sold our first franchise in 2003, which opened in 2004.
What is your leadership style?
“Never Be Satisfied”. I believe each day has an opportunity to better the brand and our patrons and franchisees experience. I chose unique and specifically experienced executives to help build this great brand. I allow them to lead their divisions, but we have weekly meetings and constant communication – managing from the outside in, unit economics comes first, daily.
For our franchise system, I run the business like a franchisee. In fact, I still handle all bills and deposits for our corporate unit keeping my finger on the pulse of what a franchisee deals with day in and day out. This is my way of leading by example, and having the ability of supporting our franchisees in driving better unit economics.
What do you look for in a franchisee?
We look for successful, well capitalized and motivated business people that can implement our system. We look for coachable people to assure our systems are maintained, that our food remains fresh and of the high quality for which we are known. Our system is an engine; we only add franchisees if it makes strategic sense and we feel they in turn deliver additional horsepower to the engine.
What keeps you excited about the company?
First, I am the biggest fan of the brand and eat at a restaurant almost every day. Our patrons are extremely loyal, it takes me 10-15 minutes walking thru our dining room to say hello to the patrons before I can sit to order, and many of them have been there from the beginning. The neat thing is, practically every visit I get introduced to a new customer. This in itself keeps me going. Our franchisees are top notch as well. We truly have a family feel within our system. When I sit in our Discovery Days with qualified candidates and hear them proclaim over and over our current franchisee satisfaction, it is the best feeling a C-Level executive can get. This is validation that you are doing the right things.
What Does East Coast Wings & Grill offer the potential franchisee?
We offer the best management team in our space. Services including, but not limited to, site selection assistance, lease negotiations advice, three weeks of training in our certified Training Center and Stores, on-line video training, marketing, patron validation system, a commissary, a Corporate Chef and test kitchen for product development and training, lease renewal negotiations advice, financial management support… plus more. We have an attractive EBITDA, over $ 265,000 per unit in 2011, 34 consecutive same store sales growth quarters, as disclosed in our Franchise Disclosure Document (FDD).
What advice can you give prospective franchisees on how to evaluate the overwhelming number of franchise opportunities available to them?
Franchising is a great business model. Most franchise systems have reputable track records, but beware of the big sales speech. When a candidate gets the “sales speech,” especially from the executive level, take notes and spend time in validating what you have been told. Of course the best practice is to speak to as many current franchisees in the system, which you are investigating. Secondly, evaluate the management team and the franchisors ability to deliver profitable results year after year. A sign of weak or façade-style management can be seen clearly in the FDD. As most everyone will read the FDD first, all item numbers of the document are important, but I would highlight a few items which could tell you a little bit more about the system and its management which you are investigating – Items 2, 3, 4, 10, 13 and of course 19. When a candidate goes into a Discovery day at a brand’s corporate office, ask for validation of the marketing material claims which got the candidate interested in the brand. Make the franchisor deliver the goods so to speak. If you find on this Discovery Day things just do not add up quite right, then move on to another brand.
Where are the next restaurants opening and what other markets are you targeting?
We have restaurants opening in San Antonio, TX; Atlanta, GA; South Carolina and Charlotte, NC, and restaurants under development in Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Alabama and Virginia.
What is the vision for the next five years?
We are focused on new units growth, which fits our strategic plan… marching to unit 100. With a conviction of managing from the outside in, unit economics first, we grow at a pace we call “Smart Modeling.” We will continue to fine-tune our system, as we work with “Never Be Satisfied” as our internal motto. Our menu will continue to deliver new innovated products to our patrons, as we have ratchet up our R&D. We will continue in leading our space in casual dining with what we are known for, fresh quality food, a laser-focused management team, the best franchisee support, strategic alliances with suppliers, loyal patrons and strong unit economics. It will be a great five years and more.
For information on East Coast Wings & Grill franchise opportunities, please visit www.eastcoastwingsfranchise.com.