Restaurateur Jeff Sinelli signs his e-mails “best wiches,” and like the play on words in his chain’s name—Which Wich —there’s a double entendre there. The 38-year-old entrepreneur loves creating brands. Sinelli sold an earlier concept, Genghis Grill, in 2002 and took a yearlong hiatus, engaging in “deep, introspective searching” for his next move, but he had no doubt it would entail creating yet another winning restaurant chain.
During that year he visited “hundreds of mom-and-pop sandwich shops around the world.”
The key to Dallas-based Which Wich, he says, is the brown paper bag and Sharpie pen with which customers place their orders, marking their choices on the bag, signing their name and handing it to a cashier.
That idea, Sinelli says, “can translate into any language.”
“It’s nonverbal, and it was the genesis for Which Wich,” he says. “My mother would pack my lunch, take a Sharpie and write ‘turkey and Swiss, apple juice, chocolate chip cookie, and banana’ on the bag and my name. I give her a lot of credit.”
He’s also learned a lot, he says, from longtime mentors and influences such as the Pizza Patrón  chain’s founder, Antonio Swad; Richard Melman, founder and chief executive of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises ; and Norman Brinker, founder of Brinker International —each of whom he counts as a good friend.
A meeting with Fred DeLuca, founder of Doctor’s Associates, franchisor of the Subway  chain, proved to be “one of the most interesting experiences of my restaurant career,” Sinelli says. “It was almost like visiting the godfather of sandwiches. We spent three hours just talking.”
During Sinelli’s hiatus five years ago, he considered other industry segments but chose sandwiches because of “the power of the name” and the “singular focus” a sandwich concept provided. A successful concept needs “transaction combined with interaction,” he says, “plus entertainment.”
It’s the melding of those elements that gives the chain what Swad calls an “edginess” that differentiates the Which Wich concept from others in its segment.
“There’s a hip vibe,” Swad says, “and the combination of the music and the finishes in the restaurant fit with its core demographic.”
“The locations need an affluent, well-educated consumer right now,” Sinelli says. “We’ll appeal more to the masses as it matures. We do well in lifestyle centers with an upscale environment, or places with new energy where Apple computer stores do well because of their interactivity. Our sound system is Bose, and their stores are interactive too.”
All Which Wich units except one are franchised. The franchise fee for an initial unit is $30,000, with each additional unit costing $25,000. Franchisees must have liquid assets of $100,000 and a $250,000 net worth. Stores range in size from 1,750 to 2,250 square feet plus a patio area.
The concept’s singular focus means only sandwiches—no soups and no salads—all sold at a single price of $5.25. Also available are house-made chips and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies as well as shakes and malts.
Customers choose from 50 different sandwiches and customize them from a long list of ingredients, toppings and sauces. Each individually customized, toasted sandwich takes four minutes to prepare. While the customer waits, Which Wich provides “a comfortable environment, newspapers and magazines, and a short intermission for relaxation.” All sandwiches have a 100-percent guarantee of satisfaction or money back, the sandwich remade to satisfy the customer, a gift certificate, or a combination of the three.
Sinelli calls Which Wich a “hybrid,” falling between quick service and fast casual.
“We have the benefits of both,” he says.
Coming late this year or early next will be online ordering, which he expects will account for up to 20 percent of business.
“We want it to be as simple as possible, like our paper-and-pen ordering system,” he says.
He’d like to see the chain be within reach of everyone in major cities in the United States and perhaps in Europe, Japan and Asia. This year, the concept has become a coast-to-coast operation, he says, with units from California to the Carolinas and Georgia. While there are no immediate plans for the Northeast, Sinelli sees such areas as Boston, with its high concentration of colleges and universities, as a good fit.
Within the next five years, he forecasts, the chain will be in both the Northeast and Midwest.
Which Wich, Sinelli says, competes not only with Subway, Quiznos Sub , Firehouse Subs , Potbelly Sandwich Works and others in its segment, but with such chains as Starbucks Coffee  for prime real estate.
Foodservice consultant Dennis Lombardi of WD Partners in Columbus, Ohio, admires Which Wich. “What’s nice,” he says, “is its differentiation from the mass-market sub shops. … It’s a fun, different experience.”
At around $200,000 for a typical build-out, Lombardi says, the concept offers a two-to-one sales-to-investment ratio. “Which Wich has the opportunity to grow quickly,” he says.
The sandwich segment, agrees Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic Information Services, continues to do well this year thanks to portability and convenience factors, as well as price points.WHICH WICH
Owner: Jeff SinelliHeadquarters: DallasNumber of units: 30Average unit volume: $700,000States where located: Colorado, California, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North CarolinaType of concept: SandwichAverage check: $7 to $8Year founded: 2004
Which Wich, he adds, “gives you a lot of options you don’t often see at a Subway, for example. It’s more upscale.”
Tristano points to the “fun and friendliness” of the concept, the bright yellow-and-black decor, and the passion of its owner as part of the formula that has driven its growth, but agrees that success ultimately may stem from its intense “customer focus.”
Longtime industry observer Nancy Kruse of The Kruse Co. in Atlanta points to the chain’s “unusual method of ordering” as one with “fun, cross-generational appeal.”
“They’ve been able to make themselves really stand out,” says Kruse, who adds that the brown bag and pen allow the customer to customize the order, which she says is “a major, major expectation today.”
Today’s hot-sandwich segment is a “highly competitive marketplace with strong, consistent growth,” she says. “There’s room for growth for a highly differentiated concept like this.”