Cherry Hearn was recently promoted to president of Which Wich, a Dallas-based sandwich chain. Her long track record with Which Wich began with her role as outside legal counsel, back when Which Wich had only three units. She also was one of Which Wich’s first franchisees, opening the concept’s eighth location and eventually two more locations. She went on to sell those locations back to another franchisee and joined the company as in-house corporate legal, a position she held for the past seven years.
Hearn’s promotion allows company founder Jeff Sinelli and his wife Courtney, executive vice president at Which Wich, to focus more time on expanding Sinelli Concepts International’s portfolio of restaurant concepts. Sinelli Concepts International acquired Paciugo Gelato Caffe in October 2017. It also owns Burger Burguesa and plans to launch Supernova Coffee in 2020.
Here Hearn discusses her unique route to president of Which Wich, how the chain’s restaurants continue to evolve, and the impact digital continues to have on the company and its operations.
Q: You began your professional career as an attorney and today you are president of a 400-plus unit sandwich concept. Did you ever envision something like this?
A: Honestly, no. To step back for a second, I began my career as a certified public accountant, working for a few firms and on my own. After 14 years as a CPA, I went to law school. I mention that today because it dovetails into my current position. I know the entrepreneurial journey. And, no, I did not ever see being the president of a restaurant brand. I started working as [Which Wich founder Jeff Sinelli’s] attorney on some outside trademark issues and fell in love with the brand. Now, 15 years later, being president is a dream come true.
Q: What made you want to leave work as an independent counsel to work as in-house counsel for Which Wich?
A: The answer is two words: Jeff Sinelli. When I came here in 2012, I ran my own business for some years. But I knew Jeff and we had a great working relationship. And given the nature of this business I knew there would be some flexibility for me, meaning I would not have to give up some of my independence. For me, it was the best of both worlds. It was kind of like taking my own practice and embedding it into the company.
Q: How will the unique perspective of having been a Which Wich franchisee help make you a better president?
A: I feel so very proud to have the opportunity to lead the company. I know that entrepreneurial spirit will lead people to start their own companies. And I know the highs and lows of the business. You walk in one day and find a piece of equipment is not working. And that changes your plan for the day. So, you must pivot quickly and be flexible to be ready for the surprises.
My experience as a franchisee gives me a tremendous amount of sensitivity when communicating with the franchise community. It allows me to be a good listener and understand their struggles and their concerns. There’s some credibility in the franchisees’ eyes because they know I’ve lived it.
Q: How has the concept evolved since you first came on board? Menu? Store design?
A: The store design has not evolved that much. Some of the older units still have that tried-and-true Which Wich look and feel. Some of the newer locations still have the same color scheme but we’ve updated the tiles and chairs, for example. So, some of the decor has been updated. But we are looking at designing and testing the Which Wich 2.0 prototype in the very near future.
In terms of menu, when you lay the bag from 2006 next to the one from 2019, there’s a lot more on the bag these days. We often talk about what’s the sweet spot for the menu. And that’s something we’re looking at exploring further.
Our equipment package has been updated, too. When I was a franchisee, we did not have microwaves. So that’s one item we added over the years. And earlier this summer we added a ventless fryer to make french fries. Many of our locations around the country now have that unit. That’s a unique offering in the sandwich segment. Most people only associate fries with burgers.
Q: How has the digital explosion affected your business?
A: It’s a topic of conversation almost every single week. Should we go in the direction of a kiosk ordering system? We are testing that in some of our locations. Third-party delivery … I don’t know of any restaurant that’s not talking about it; from the additional load in terms of prep and order processing and how to integrate these systems into our point-of-sale systems. And we have our own app, too. How do you get these solutions to work together? It’s a great convenience for the consumer but it comes at great expense for the operators. There’s a lot to consider.
Q: How do you operate in the digital and delivery era without losing that warmth that was a cornerstone of the business with the paper bags and markers guests use to customize their sandwich orders?
A: That’s what the bag was intended to do and what it still does. And we can’t offer that via the app. But when they walk in the door, it’s all about guest service. We want the experience to be compelling. When you leave, we want people to remember the smiles our team put on your face, the music that was playing and, of course, how good the food was.
Jeff always says, “Hospitality is how you feel when you are someplace.” We are big believers in that.