Blimpie/Kahala Executive Q&A Series – John Wuycheck
February 29, 2016
When you’ve found a good thing, something in you just knows it. That’s why John Wuycheck, Senior Vice President of Development at Kahala Brands, is always so eager to talk about the Blimpie franchise opportunity and what makes it a cut above the competition in the crowded sub shop market. Read on for a dynamic Q & A with Wuycheck, a game changing franchise development executive responsible for the sustainable growth of some of the most recognizable brands in franchising.
Q: What brought you back to Kahala and Blimpie in 2014, after working with other nationally recognized brands like Seattle’s Best Coffee and Edible Arrangements?
John: I should start by saying that I love what I do in leading the franchise development of some of these iconic brands. When you help people realize their dreams of business ownership, it’s incredibly rewarding. Being able to put your thumbprint on these brands, and watch them grow across the United States is really what it’s all about for me. So when Kahala approached me about coming back, I knew it was a wonderful opportunity because the leadership team is really focused on the franchisees and helping them be effective brand representatives in their local market.
Q: Tell us more about the new owners of Kahala Brands describe how their backgrounds and skills make them a good fit for leading this roster of restaurant brands?
J: The Serruyas purchased Kahala back in 2013 and they are an excellent fit as our leaders because they have a long history of success with restaurant franchises. As the driving force behind Yogen Fruz’s success, they truly understand how to develop and grow brands in America and around the world. One of the keys to their success is that they grasp the value of supporting and empowering franchisees. It’s great to have franchising veterans with proven success generating sustainable growth for food franchise brands leading the charge at Kahala!
Q: Describe a bit more, in their first few years of being there, what changes the Serruyas have brought to Kahala? Is there anything about their personalities or outlooks that makes them strong leaders?
J: I think it’s their focus on the franchisees, their willingness to invest in the brand to increase public awareness, and their drive to consistently improve our customer service while fully embracing technology. For example, in the past couple of years since the acquisition, the digital marketing spend for the Blimpie brand has doubled. That flexibility and willingness to invest in the brand has really made a difference as it allows us to appeal directly to the modern day customer and franchise sales prospect.
Q: What benefit does the relationship between parent company Kahala and Blimpie offer to franchisees and the brand as a whole?
J: Well, we have a huge team fully dedicated to marketing, so we’re in there every day, getting things done on a national scale. What Kahala offers is a number of shared services for all of our franchisees, regardless of the brand they’ve purchased. For example, the marketing team for Blimpie reports directly to a senior executive team which manages a number of different brands, so we can capitalize on trends across the industry. Another of our shared services is our distribution team. Many companies face serious limitations when it comes to distribution because they don’t have the infrastructure to deliver products and other items to franchisees quickly. That’s not the case at Blimpie as we have distribution houses strategically located across the United States – making it much easier for us to get orders out to franchisees quickly.
Q: Blimpie has enjoyed more than fifty years of success, so the first question I imagine most franchise prospects ask is how does Blimpie set itself apart in such a crowded sub sandwich space?
J: What has stood the test of time with Blimpie is the quality of the sandwiches. Still today, we fresh-slice our premium meats and cheeses for each sandwich. We also bake our bread fresh every day and still have the freshest ingredients of any sub shop. It’s a difference you can taste! We also personalize our subs any way the customer wants it and have worked hard to appeal to evolving customers tastes and expectations. We have recently developed a new in-store design and we continually introduce new bold and flavorable menu items to appeal to changing customer tastes. So, we set ourselves apart because we are able to stick to the original brand promise that makes us great while introducing new products and concepts that appeal to the new generation.
Q: What makes Blimpie’s subs better than the rest?
J: I think more than anything it’s the quality of our products. We have always prioritized selling the highest quality meats and cheeses on top of freshly baked bread. You just can’t beat the smell and taste of freshly-baked bread, and I’d put our bread up against anyone’s out there. You pair that with our fresh meats and cheeses, and I’d just say there’s no beating the taste of our sandwiches. As I’ve come back into this brand in the last couple of years, once I told people I was working with Blimpie, the first thing out of their mouths is always, “I love my Blimpie!”
Q: Fifty years is a long time, and many say that time makes you wiser. My question is what do you think are the key lessons you’ve learned from 50 years in business?
J: It all starts with the right franchisee. We have many franchisees who have been in the system for 20 or 30 years, and they’ve built their family business around Blimpie. And that doesn’t happen if the brand isn’t working for them. So we’ve learned that it’s not just finding the right franchisees, but it’s also making sure from the very beginning that everything is engineered for their success.
We can give our franchisees the benefit of all the knowledge we’ve gained through our years of experience with franchise operations and efficiency. Our training programs prepare our franchisees to deliver on customer promises and cultivate a strong employee culture at their locations. And behind the scenes, our regional area developers are working hand-in-hand with each franchisee to make sure they have all of the educations and resources they need to succeed for the long haul.
Q: What have you guys done to the in-store design, to the menu, that allow you to appeal to both your more “modern” customers and your “old-school” customers?
J: Let’s break that into 2 parts and start with appealing to the new customer. We have a phenomenal in-house social/digital team who works hard each day to help us appeal to our younger, more web-savvy customers. We have developed customer focus apps and contests and have also completely redesigned our website with a mobile-first focus. We doubled our digital advertising budget, and our in-store, fast casual-type look is fresh, clean and new. This allows our digital and in-store identities to work together and deliver a powerful, engaging and conversational experience modern customers are seeking.
But to keep at the roots of Blimpie, we are continuing to roll out new sandwiches that are reminiscent of the Blimpie of old. One example of this is the Hoboken Hero, a tasty Italian sub creation harking back to our New Jersey roots. Another recent menu item, The Blimp, potentially embodies the Blimpie brand more than any other sub. It’s got turkey, roast beef, prosciuttini, salami, pepperoni, provolone – just a massive, incredible-tasting sandwich that has all the tastes of Blimpie in one big bite. And then we also have flatbreads, which allows of customers to try their Blimpie favorites on top of the new modern bread craze. So, we’re appealing to both crowds as we’re introducing bold new looks and flavors while retaining the fan favorites that have made us great for years.
Q: It seems that a lot franchise prospects are attracted to “following a new trend” like frozen yogurt; do you have any cautions for franchisee prospects who are pursuing a trendy, but largely unproven, model?
J: No matter what brands you’re considering, you have to consider what will happen five, ten, fifteen years from now. There are a lot of brands and industries that become fads, as you point out, and yogurt concepts have definitely enjoyed a great upswing in recent years. But what happens when the craze fades or the market becomes too saturated? Which brands have stood/will stand the test of time with franchisees remaining profitable in the long term?
Of course, this is a difficult challenge as some of these industries/concepts are simply too hard to predict/evaluate long term as many of them are often too new. Sometimes it pays off to invest in a brand early, but there are also plenty of horror stories. There are certainly no guarantees with any brand in any industry, but there’s something to be said for a proven brand like Blimpie operating in a segment as stable and profitable as sandwich franchises.