Betting on a Better Burger (and Shakes): John Eucalitto Leads Wayback into the Future

Betting on a Better Burger (and Shakes): John Eucalitto Leads Wayback into the Future

The "better burger" marketplace may seem crowded, but for Wayback Burgers the competition makes for exciting challenges and opportunities.

"We have to be innovative, offer great food, world-class training and support, and we have to aggressively pursue development agreements with the right operators in the right places," says John Eucalitto, the 53-year-old president and CEO of Wayback Burgers.

Wayback, a Connecticut-based fast-casual brand known for cooked-to-order burgers and hand-dipped milkshakes, operates restaurants in 28 states with 135 locations worldwide. In 2017 alone the brand has opened more than a dozen new locations, and another two dozen are under development.

Eucalitto is proud of his leadership team and says their experience and commitment to the brand are attracting new franchisees and encouraging multi-unit growth among existing franchisees. As a leader, he believes it's important to solicit feedback from his management team as well as from franchisees, which he sees as customers of the home office. "Our franchisees, whether they realize it or not, own the brand and its direction as much as we do. Listening first, acting second, is critical," he says.

Part of the brand's growth plan involves a focus on international. "We already have restaurants open in Argentina, Brunei, and Saudi Arabia, and master franchisee agreements in another 30-plus countries," Eucalitto says. International growth will remain a focus of the brand in the coming months and years as Wayback pursues partners throughout Europe, the Middle East, and other parts of the world.

In the past year, he says, the brand has worked hard to implement innovative strategies that include a new in-store design and a mobile food cart--all while continuing to support franchisees with an experienced leadership team and a proven model.

Ultimately, Eucalitto envisions the brand reaching 1,000 units and enjoying a healthy and growing retail merchandising income. "We are trying to build and maintain a great reputation and create a brand with staying power that will be around for a long, long time."

Name: John Eucalitto
Title: President, CEO
Company: Jake's Franchising
Units: 135
Age: 53
Family: Wife Wendy, children Frank and Madison
Years in franchising: 27
Years in current position: 9

Leadership

What is your role as CEO?
To bring our corporate vision to life. Balancing company resources, developing a safe and respected culture, driving company performance, and most important, making good decisions.

Describe your leadership style.
I am inherently a diplomat. Allowing the team, franchisees included, to be involved, creative, and take ownership in the decision-making process, in a fun, family environment.

What has inspired your leadership style?
Experience. Having witnessed the rise and fall of brands over the years, I have come to realize that the more you solicit participation, the better the outcome. Our franchisees, whether they realize it or not, own the brand and its direction as much as we do. Listening first, acting second, is critical.

What is your biggest leadership challenge?
Having the team understand that there are many pieces to a puzzle and the collective team is responsible for it.

How do you transmit your culture from your office to front-line employees?
Direct involvement with them. We conduct monthly webinars where our leadership team and I give updates and open the floor for questions. The webinar is open to franchise owners and managers.

Where is the best place to prepare for leadership: an MBA school or OTJ?
OTJ, starting at a very young age, usually influenced by your first job or an immediate family member. Embracing leadership, by choice or by fire, will allow you to grow quickly and learn to adapt to the ever-changing environment.

Are tough decisions best taken by one person?
How do you make tough decisions? In the franchising world, most decisions are tough ones, therefore we make them collectively. Our goal is to involve as many franchisees as we can in the decision-making process.

Would you rather be liked or respected?
Both. Being liked is self-satisfying on a personal level. Being respected goes much deeper and is much more difficult to achieve. I am a believer that achieving both creates a more dynamic leader.

Advice to CEO wannabes:
Never quit on yourself or your team.

Management

Describe your management style:
A combination of affiliative, participative, and pacesetting. Family and life are most important. This is reiterated daily, yet involvement, accountability, and responsibility also are required.

What does your management team look like?
We have a mix of broad and focused franchise veterans. Most have been franchisees at one point, both successful and not so successful, all appreciating our customers, the franchisees.

How does your management team help you lead?
We all accept and embrace collective decisions. Senior management meets every Monday to discuss current issues, objectives, and goals. Our desire and ability to work together is paramount.

Favorite management gurus: Do you read management books?
I don't spend enough time reading books. Most of my time is scouring industry updates and management tips. Recently I have been listening to podcasts while driving. I always enjoy "How I Built This."

What makes you say, "Yes, now that's why I do what I do!"?
When a team member--including franchisees--has a successful moment in life, inspired by their involvement with us.

Operations

What trends are you seeing with consumer spending habits in your stores?
Average tickets are up slightly, without an increase in pricing. A slight move to chicken versus beef as well.

Has the economic recovery reached all of your customers?
Not necessarily. Our demographic is very broad and some segments continue to struggle. Price consciousness has not gone away.

How is the economy driving consumer behavior in your system?
We have not experienced a significant change in behavior recently.

What are you expecting from your market in the next 12 months?
Continued system-wide growth of 15 to 20 percent and a substantial increase from our international partners.

Are your franchisees bullish or bearish about growth and adding units?
Most continue to be bullish as we continue our transition from single-unit operators to multi-units.

Are commodity/supplies costs any cause for concern in your system?
Most of our products have been stable for the past two years, some with a slight decline, which has allowed us to maintain local pricing.

In what ways are political/global issues affecting the market and your brand?
Government sanctions affect our development opportunities, Sudan for instance. Until January 2017, we were not allowed to work with prospects who were willing to open. We are now in the final stages of construction and will hopefully be the first U.S. brand there.

Personal

What time do you like to be at your desk?
7 a.m. It's usually quieter then and you can better plan your day, although others have joined in!

Exercise in the morning?
Wine with lunch? Our office is a 4-story building without an elevator, so we all exercise all day. Lunch, if not brought in, is somewhat of a rare occurrence.

Do you socialize with your team after work/outside the office?
Usually not. Family is most important so we try to respect each other's personal time.

Last two books read:
Our 2017 FDDs--U.S. and Canada.

What technology do you take on the road?
I always have my three devices: iPhone, Dell laptop, and iPad.

How do you relax/balance life and work?
My relaxation comes when I am with my very, very large family. We rarely discuss work and truly enjoy being together, whether at the family lake house or vacationing together.

Favorite vacation destination:
Italy.

Favorite occasions to send employees notes:
Birthdays and holidays.

Favorite company product/service:
Hot dogs, mustard and relish.

Bottom Line

What are your long-term goals for the company?
Reach 1,000 units system-wide and retail merchandising from Wayback worldwide.

How has the economy changed your goals for your company?
Not at all. You have to adapt to the ebbs and flows of the environment to win in the long term.

Where can capital be found these days?
Most franchisees have been using bank loans, SBA guaranteed, to expand their businesses. We have been fortunate not to have had the need for capital, although private equity is readily available.

How do you measure success?
Progress, both personally and professionally. When our team members are growing and the system is growing, we are progressing.

What has been your greatest success?
Developing our team to build our brand.

Any regrets?
No, we make decisions and live with them. If they are wrong, we adjust and continue to move forward.

What can we expect from your company in the next 12 to 18 months?
Continued domestic and international development, with an additional 40 to 50 locations opening.

Published: January 20th, 2018

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