After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, Danny Sonenshine quickly found himself working as a litigator and transactional attorney at major firms in Orange County.
It didn't take long for the Laguna Beach native to realize a few things about himself--realities that led him to leave the practice of law after six years for the very different field of franchising and restaurants.
"I didn't like working for someone else," he says. "And I didn't like not having any control over my schedule."
He recalls the lifestyle he and his family had when he practiced law. "I remember getting emails on my BlackBerry when I was in the delivery room with my wife. After my first daughter was born, my wife would bring her, along with dinner, to a conference room in the evenings so I could see them."
Seeking an entirely different lifestyle, Sonenshine says he considered going to business school and looked around for a couple of years to see what else he might do. "I thought about business and real estate. I'd always had an entrepreneurial streak in me. Not having attended business school or having run a business, I still thought starting a business was something that was not incredibly complicated, and that I could learn to do," he says. "A franchise seemed logical."
Sonenshine heard that a couple of Wingstops in California were doing good numbers and that the franchisor was opening up the state to development. He was a fan of the product and thought it sounded like a good idea.
"I bought a deal for 10 stores in early 2004 and opened my first store in 2005. Then came four in 2006, one in 2007, four in 2008 and three in 2009," he says, adding that he now has a deal to build up to 18 Wingstops in Southern California.
Sonenshine, now based in Newport Beach, admits there was a "big learning curve," especially in choosing locations, understanding demographics, and hiring the right people. One tough lesson came after construction was completed on his second location in October 2005.
"As soon as we finished construction, we paid all our vendors--the contractors, kitchen equipment, everybody," Sonenshine says. "Then we had problems with the landlord and couldn't open until March 2006. That was tough. So now I don't accept the premises until there's a certificate of occupancy and the landlord has provided all the utilities."
Another important lesson had to do with finding the right locations, he says. "We felt the pressure of the development agreement and probably compromised on some locations in the beginning. When you compromise with a bad location and you don't have a lot of stores open, it can hamper your growth. It's best to work with the franchisor and get some latitude on development and not settle for a 'C' location when you should be looking for an 'A' location."
Sonenshine says he's gotten much better at dealing with all the issues franchisees face. He believes his number-one asset is that he cares a lot about his leadership team and 150 employees.
"I have close supervisory relationships with my main employees--my VP of operations and my regional director. They run the stores, because I know they know much more than I do," he says. "I focus on development and finances and let them handle day-to-day operations. It's also important that the store managers and employees see these operators as authority, empowered."
Sonenshine says he's happy with the Wingstop product and the simplicity of its concept. "In California, there's a cult-like following of In-N-Out Burger. That's fine. We believe in doing one thing and doing it right. We're the wing experts. We have side items, but our main item is wings, and we do them better than anybody else." His favorites are Thai, lemon pepper, and hickory smoked barbecue with fresh-cut seasoned fries.
Several years into his second career, Sonenshine, who was much influenced by his parents, wife, and brother Coby, says the difference in his lifestyle is night and day. "Now I pretty much don't miss anything for my family unless we're opening a new store and I have to be there on opening day." And he and his wife Kerri spend time working on nonprofit boards and community projects, something he says has always been important to him.
Name: Daniel Sonenshine
Company: Far West Restaurant Group, LLC
No. of units: Wingstop, 11 with 2 more about to open
Family: Wife of 12 years, Kerri; two daughters, 8 and 4
Years in current position: 6
Years in franchising: 6