The Secret Sauce to East Coast Wings + Grill’s Success: CEO’s Focus on Quality and Unit-Level Economics
East Coast Wings + Grill founder and CEO Sam Ballas is a man of many talents. Before becoming CEO of the successful concept, he worked in everything from investment banking to estate planning, with various careers in real estate.
Although he worked for many years in these different verticals, he’s also spent his entire life in or around the restaurant industry.
“I basically got into the restaurant industry at birth, since I grew up in a restaurant family,” Sam said. “A lot of my relatives – including my dad – were restaurateurs, so even though I became involved with East Coast Wings + Grill in 1999, I’ve really been in the industry my whole life.”
So, it was no surprise when he transitioned from real estate and restaurants – and experienced quick success.
“I first got started in East Coast Wings + Grill because the restaurant was operating in one of my real estate firm’s properties, in a small retail spot in Winston-Salem, North Carolina” Sam said. “I invested in the restaurant about four years after it started, and bought out and retooled the company two years after that. I made operations more detailed and efficient, and soon I decided to open up a second location – which did very well. That’s when I knew I had something cool that I needed to run with.”
Franchising for Growth
After purchasing the restaurant, Sam also began studying the franchise model, its advantages as a growth strategy and what it could mean for his restaurants.
“No one in my family had ever done franchise modeling with their restaurants,” Sam said. “I wanted to be the first one to do that.”
East Coast Wings + Grill began franchising in 2003, after a prospect looking for a wing concept approached Sam. We grew to more than 30 operating locations, with twice as many in development, but growing quickly was never Sam’s focus. This has proven to be, counterintuitively to many franchisors, one of the biggest reasons for our success.
Quality over Quantity
Sam’s conservative business approach and laser-like focus when it comes to vetting and supporting franchisees has helped them become some of the most successful unit-level operators in the casual dining space.
“Over the last seven years, the brand has doubled in size,” Sam said. “But sales growth is up 165 percent. So, although unit count doubled, sales growth exceeded the growth of that unit because our focus has always been on quality – not quantity – of our locations. We want to help each of our franchisees find success individually.”
In 2016, East Coast Wings + Grill franchisees averaged a more than 19 percent EBITDA* – almost double the average EBITDA for similarly-sized casual dining restaurants.
Focused on product quality and fresh ingredients, our emphasis on quality extends far beyond our franchisees. Sam’s concept became famous for their more than 58 wing flavors, and in 2006, he expanded the menu to also include salads, sandwiches, wraps, burgers and more.
“Even though our menu is 94 percent fresh and made from scratch, we can still ensure such great margins for our franchisees because we have this part of our business down to a science,” Sam said. “Between our supply chain management and commodity charting, we’ve been able to hedge our cost factoring. Because of this, we haven’t had nearly the pressure to our bottom line that others in our segment have felt.”
Even in the 2008 recession, the brand’s franchisees were able to come out on the other side, as corporate worked to optimize operations and drive down costs for each location.
With some of the most attractive EBITDA in the casual dining space, and approaching 40 high-quality units with strong unit-level economics, Sam’s growth and optimization strategy has paid off – for both the brand and franchisees.