November 14, 2017

Riding 'fast casual' wave, Cheshire-based Wayback Burgers expands

Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
Headquartered in Cheshire, Wayback Burgers has 146 restaurants in the U.S. and five overseas.

Don't call Wayback Burgers "fast food." The Cheshire-based chain serves "fast casual" food, Executive Vice President William Chemero said.

What's the difference? Fast casual is higher quality, made to order and brought to your table, all for just $1 or $2 more per meal than McDonald's or Wendy's, Chemero explained. It's the food of the future, especially for millennials who want freshness, variety and healthier eating options, all at a reasonable price, he said.

"Our menus are perfect for the millennials," Chemero said. "We are really designing our future around the millennials, people aged 25 to 38."

That future looks bright. The franchiser has 146 restaurants in the U.S. and five overseas. It has opened 20 to 30 new locations a year for several years — including its newest in Casablanca, Morocco on Nov. 6 — and hopes to push that number to 30 to 35 next year, Chemero said.

With a 1950s décor and a menu built around its award-winning burgers and 13 flavors of hand-made milkshakes served in traditional metal cups, Wayback Burgers has carved out a space for itself in the highly competitive fast casual burger market.

Not bad for a company that started in 1991 with a single restaurant in Newark, Del. The chain's founder, John Carter, originally called it Jake's Hamburgers, and by 2008, he had 10 outlets, all in the Mid-Atlantic. Around that time, Carter decided to begin franchising but soon realized he knew little about the business.

Enter franchising specialists Chemero and his business partner John Eucalitto. The two were looking for a new challenge after taking the Wallingford-based franchiser Edible Arrangements from 16 to 753 stores in just under three years, Chemero said. A broker connected them with Carter, and the trio formed a partnership, he said.

The chain then sold its 10 corporate-owned restaurants to franchisees, moved its headquarters to Cheshire and began a slow, but steady expansion, Chemero said. Along the way, it tweaked its brand, first becoming Jake's Wayback Burgers and then just Wayback Burgers.

Sheldon Dill, president of Cheshire Chamber of Commerce, called the company an asset to the community.

"They are a very popular restaurant in Cheshire and an outstanding supporter of community organizations and activities," Dill said.

One would think that 2008, the start of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, was a terrible time to launch a franchise chain, but one would be wrong, Chemero said. People facing tough times are more likely to break the piggy bank and try something new, he said.

"For us, the downturn was a positive because so many people were looking to start something," he said. "People were coming to us who had cash or were out of work and looking to utilize their 401Ks. It wasn't really that difficult."

Another attraction for potential franchisees then and now: a $350,000-to-$375,000 buy in fee, one of the lowest in the industry, Chemero said. Unlike other chains, Wayback does not expect people to purchase more than one franchise at a time or to have restaurant experience. Quality instead of quantity drives its franchisee picks, Chemero said.

"We like to do just one at a time," he said. "It's a much slower approach, but more controllable. If you like us and we like you, we can get into multiple franchises."

Wayback's franchisees, in contrast to other chains, are a happy lot, Chemero said. He points with pride to the fact that Wayback has never been sued by a franchisee.

But even as Wayback continues its expansion, recent reports in the New York Times and Bloomberg have suggested the fast-growing fast casual food sector may be cooling off. Chemero has heard the buzz, but isn't worried. The best and most innovative chains will continue to expand and prosper, he said.

"We're not concerned about oversaturation," he said. "You've just got to be a better restaurant."

As part of being a better restaurant, Wayback emphasizes innovation, including a successful test of food carts in New York City and plans for food trucks in rural and suburban areas, Chemero said. Wayback has diversified its menu, adding salads, chicken, veggie burgers, a fish sandwich and, at some locations, breakfast, he said.

The company also puts outlets in non-traditional locations, like military bases and Walmart stores, Chemero said. He is especially excited about a plan to bring Wayback Burger restaurants to the nation's thousands of convenience stores, gas stations and truck stops.

"No one is doing that in fast casual," he said.

One thing Wayback doesn't need at the moment is cash, Chemero said. After flirting with going public several years ago, the privately held firm held back, not wanting to sacrifice control, he said. The company has plenty of capital from ongoing operations to fund its expansion, he said.

"We don't need money," Chemero said.

Christopher Hoffman can be reached at news@newhavenbiz.com

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