When Joe Wegrzyniak joined Jersey Mike's Subs 5.5 years ago, the Manasquan, N.J.-based chain had about 375 locations and was developing new stores at a rate of 35 per year. Today, Jersey Mike's has roughly 575 locations and will complete 100 new units this year alone.
During his tenure, Wegrzyniak has worked to keep opening costs steady for franchisees amid significant upgrades to the chain's prototype design. He's also spearheaded development of a unique contractor evaluation program that's proving to be a win for the company, its franchisees and its contractor partners.
rd+d: When you joined Jersey Mike's, what experiences and skills did you bring to the job?
JW: I grew up in the construction business. I have memories of going to work with my brother when I was as young as nine, holding a spackling knife for the first time and thinking how awkward it felt. He taught me a lot of the techniques of the trade. I also worked in restaurants — front of the house, back of the house, a little management — to put myself through college. I got a degree in environmental science and worked in an office for a few years, but decided to get back into construction. Having that blend of office experience and field experience serves me well. Sometimes you have to be able to put on one hat and communicate effectively with a contractor and then turn around and be able to communicate effectively with a franchisee, a building department or another professional.
rd+d: Jersey Mike's has grown significantly since you came aboard. What does your department look like today?
JW: We have a small internal construction department and extensive field support through Jersey Mike's area developers. All of our design and project management are done in-house; architecture and construction are done through external partners in local markets. I'm responsible for everything from when a lease is signed (sometimes earlier) until the day a store opens — design and development, construction, equipment, graphics, whatever is needed to get the doors open. I work with a great group of people, both here in the office and in the field. We do a lot with a little.
rd+d: Creating efficiencies and brand consistency is a big part of what you do. How does the contractor evaluation program you've developed play into that?
JW: It's a tool that lets our franchisees know that approved contractors in their market have actually looked at, touched and smelled a new-construction Jersey Mike's store; that they understand what we're building and it's not something that they have to worry about bidding off a set of plans that may or may not be correct. They know that these contractors have gone through the class, that they have the knowledge they need to be efficient and cost effective. The contractors, on the other hand, get to know exactly what needs to be done. If there are problems with architects not including information or situations where they don't know what they're building at some point, they can figure it out because they've experienced the class and they know us. They also get to see our national account pricing. If you have a contractor walking in who has never been through our program, they're going to take pricing that they know of on the street versus pricing that we establish with these companies. It makes it easier for us and easier for the franchisee and the contractor to put a handle on that.
rd+d: So contractors actually go through a class? How does that work?
JW: We start out by inviting contractors in each market that we have stores going into to be part of the team to build Jersey Mike's. As we develop more markets the contractors that were successful stay as part of that team and the contractors in new markets who want to become part of the team come to the next class. So each year we add a class or two and it's a constantly evolving list of approved contractors that we can send out to franchisees when they're ready to have their stores bid. We're at about 130 on the list so far and we're 3 years into the program.
The class itself is about a day and a half. We spend the first afternoon introducing ourselves and our brand. We have dinner together and start the next day by visiting one of the stores. They tour the store, observe and ask questions. I highlight some of the situations or problems that we have experienced. Because we're so specific in how we operate our brand, a lot of information that may not be clearly spelled out on plans can be explained on-site. For instance, we have a very specific number for the distance we need between our meat case and our drop in, which they may not realize or get right from just looking at plans. But by taking them in and showing the process, they see for themselves how much space is needed and why.
We finish the second half of that day with PowerPoint presentations going over documentation, paperwork and our bid process so that we can review the bids accurately and not have a bunch of different forms. We then send them our construction manual, which recaps everything from the class.
rd+d: Who typically attends the classes?
JW: We want it to be the person out in the field or the direct project manager who oversees the job. If for some reason that person leaves, the approval stays with him and not necessarily with the contractor company. We're not just throwing a company out there and saying, "Yup, you're approved to build our stores." Rather, we want to be able to say that by putting specific people into the field they know what we want. They know us and our brand and are able to build it successfully. It's also important that we limit approvals to three to five per market — enough so franchisees can get competitive bids and for us to verify pricing, but not so many that the contractor who's taking his time and money to go to the approval courses has to worry about too much competition. It's not for everyone, but it's a requirement here and it's been fantastic for us.
rd+d: What's a typical build-out time for a new Jersey Mike's unit?
JW: We strive for the whole process, from lease signing to store opening, to take about four months. Our typical construction takes about five to six weeks, depending on the condition of the space we start with. The real variable is the permitting stage, which can vary immensely. The other piece that can affect timing is vendor performance, but we work to establish long-term, national account relationships so that's rarely an issue. We communicate our development schedule and they are able to stock what we need.
rd+d: Any favorite pieces of advice you've received that you'd care to share?
JW: One I try to live by is a saying from Mark Twain that was posted in our house when I was growing up. I remember it as, "I've known a great many worries, but most of them never happened." In other words, don't stress everything because things have a way of working out. Another is from my older brother, who mentored me in the business: "Keep your mouth shut and your feet moving."