For years, Itai Afek has been obsessed with creating unique sandwiches with the “ideal bite,” which he defines as the right mix of sweet, spicy, savory and crunchy.
“All my life I’ve been really passionate about sandwiches, so I’m always trying to create different types,” he said. “I love out-of-the-box ingredients.”
That quest led him in 2011 to launch Wolfnights in Manhattan, a takeout-friendly sandwich shop inspired by the wraps of the Mediterranean region. Different flavors of flatbread dough are pressed and cooked to order on a hot iron dome — he has dubbed it the IronWolf — and filled with various options borrowing from cultures from around the world.
The Dire Wolf, for example, a top seller, has fried chicken wrapped in a ginger dough with lamb bacon, melted cheddar, green papaya slaw, pickled shipka peppers and the proprietary Wolf Ketchup. The vegan Mowgli has grilled cauliflower wrapped in fennel seed dough with spicy pickled pineapple, shallot, BBQ potato chips and sage aioli. The average check is about $11, and sandwiches can also be made into a bowl, and the menu includes sides and milkshakes.
It’s a concept Afek, Wolfnights’ CEO, is ready to grow.
He opened the second Wolfnights location in Manhattan in 2017. Two years later, the franchise development company Fransmart signed on to grow the brand, and Afek is also planning more corporate growth. He signed a lease for a third company-owned unit scheduled to open this year, and he is planning two more before the end of 2021.
Now, with Fransmart, Afek is taking to franchisees about growing Wolfnights elsewhere, likely on the East Coast.
It’s a good time for a concept like his that can operate in a small footprint to take advantage of real estate opportunities, said Afek.
“It’s a tenant’s market now,” he said. Many restaurants in the 500- to 1,200-square foot range are closing, and Wolfnights makes for a low-cost conversion without a lot of equipment, other than the IronWolf and dough press.
“We have this concept that brings high quality ingredients with a variety of food options for everyone — vegan, gluten free, wraps and bowls — all made to order. All of this can be done in a very small place,” said Afek.
Like most restaurants, Wolfnights’ sales took a hit in 2020. Sales were down an average of about 40% to 50%, Afek said. The concept has always been strong for takeout, but through the pandemic, Afek has been working on improving the delivery experience, ensuring speed and accuracy for the customizable sandwiches and bowls, improving packaging to ensure the flatbread stays warm and cold ingredients stay cold.
Wolfnights works with all the major third-party delivery players, but Afek said during the pandemic his restaurant put a card in each bag to encourage guests to join the loyalty program and order from the brand’s website to lower commission fees. He also created Wolfnights University, a centralized training program to ensure consistency as the concept grows.
As the restaurant industry recovers, Wolfnights is ready, said Afek.
“I’m all in, my heart is all in,” he said. “I wanted to open something I was passionate about: Making the perfect sandwich and to create a well-known brand.”
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