Which Wich Founder Jeff Sinelli’s 15 Lessons on Turning 15
Lessons on business, philanthropy, and prioritization from the CEO of a 350-unit chain.
BY JEFF SINELLI
Today, there are more than 350 Which Wich locations across the U.S.
This year is a big one for me when it comes to nice round milestones. This summer I celebrated my 50th birthday and this December, my baby turns 15.
No, I’m not talking about either of my two beautiful daughters—who are both years away from 15 but seem to be on the verge of asking for the car keys more and more each day.
I’m referring to my business baby. The baby I started in Dallas with just a business card and a dream 15 years ago this December, Which Wich Superior Sandwiches.
It’s hard to think that it was only a decade and a half ago that I embarked on this yellow-and-black laden journey. Today, there are more than 350 Which Wich locations across the U.S. and we have a presence in seven international countries including the United Kingdom, which we just opened in the last year. We’ve provided a model for hundreds of local businesswomen and men to realize their dream of business ownership. We’ve helped revolutionize the sandwich industry—what was a stale, bland “bread and meat” segment when we opened the doors to our first location has since become a booming, competitive source of bold creativity and flavorful innovation.
Jeff Sinelli started Which Wich 15 years ago in Dallas with just a business card and a dream.
At the same time, I’ve grown substantially from the 35-year-old single hustler ready to kick the sandwich industry’s doors down. I got married, realized the greatest dream of all, being the father to two incredible daughters, and matured in my approach to business and the complex intersection of sandwiches, people and financial success. I’ve also been fortunate and blessed to touch lives all over the country, and all over the world, by honing a stronger focus on philanthropy. Instead of talking the talk at 35 about wanting to make the world better, I’ve taken steps to walk the walk and embrace the concept of conscious capitalism, with initiatives like our Project PB&J program.
But I’ve also tripped, stumbled, fallen flat on my face, and lived to tell the tale, became a better man and better businessman because of it, and can look back on the nicks, scratches, and scars to better inform a successful path forward.
In the spirit of that philanthropic “giving back” and as my Which Wich birthday present to other young and hungry entrepreneurs like me (at 50, I only feel younger and have gotten hungrier every year), I want to give back a lesson learned for every year of Which Wich’s existence.
- Surround Yourself with a Winning Team—Both in Business and In Life
A younger Jeff was stubborn, singularly focused and ready to battle anyone who didn’t share his opinions. Then, I met Courtney. She has been not only my rock and the left brain to my right brain, but together we’ve put together an awesome family with our two daughters. They are my constant motivation. I’ve worked to surround myself with an awesome family at Which Wich over the years, too. It’s been important to me that we take care of those who are taking care of the brand, and we’ve implemented benefits such as a 10 year anniversary sabbatical vacation, flexible schedule and ability to work from home, custom shoes and the day off on your birthday, clothing allowance, unlimited meal plan, turkeys for the entire office on Thanksgiving and more. Take care of those who take care of you and you will be rich in both spirit and your bottom line.
- Be Brash, Be Bold, Standout
There is nothing wrong with causing a scene. In the business world, you can’t be a wilting flower. I was blessed (and sometimes in school and in my early years, some would say cursed) with a personality that thrives on attention and standing out. If you truly believe in your vision, shout it from the rooftops. Wear it on your sleeve—literally. If you see me in public, there’s a very high likelihood that I’ll be wearing my Which Wich gear. I’m proud of what we’ve created. Why not project that pride? You need to go all in on what you’re passionate about or there’s no reason for you to expect others to buy in.
- Take Calculated Risks
Taking risks is a good thing—if you’ve done your homework to understand and embrace the chance of failure. Those who are unwilling to put themselves out there and take a chance on an idea that might fail will never succeed. I don’t believe in living your life conservatively, frozen by a fear of failure. As long as you are weighing the pros and cons, the odds of success, and then taking the risk because you believe it’s a chance for happiness or success, you’ll never truly be a failure.
- Challenge Failure but Embrace It
Similar to the importance to taking risks, facing and staring down a fear of failure is vital to success in business. You want the prospect of failure to be present in all elements of your business career. It should be sitting in the corner, taunting you, mocking you, trying to get you to give up—and you should take an approach of staring right back at it and pushing forward. However, if failure does win a battle or two, shake its hand after the fight and know that you’ve gained more knowledge of failure’s game plan which will give you a leg up in the next battle.
- Leave Any Place Better Than How You Found It
In every situation, make sure to ask yourself if your impact has been a positive or a negative one. Is that situation better off than when I arrived? If it isn’t, your work is not done. If you can’t make it better in that moment, you better make a note to return to address it in the future.
- Understand the Power of a Team Mentality
Your business team will thrive if you have an “all for one and one for all” mentality. Every day your team should feel like it’s them against the world. We adopted black-and-yellow as our “team colors” and that team mentality has been a driving force in us banding together to tackle challenges and fight to be the very best.
- Take The Leap
The sky is the limit. Don’t ever forget that. Early on, I was inspired by a painting by the artist David Dalla Venezia depicting a man taking a leap across a void and that has been my personal mantra ever since. It is the perfect metaphor for how I believe you should approach business—and your personal life. Just take the leap. At the time that I first saw the painting, I didn’t have enough money to even buy a print of it. Today, I have several prints and versions of his art. We’ve used that as part of our Which Wich culture, too—from our conference which we call LEAP to our discovery days which we call Leap Days. It’s all about realizing that you, and only you, can make that first move to achieve anything.
- Innovation Begins with Challenging Yourself
The first step toward being a true innovator is to stop and examine what you think and why you think it. Pick apart the reasons for the opinions that you have and determine the factors that created that idea in your head. A lot of innovation comes from dissecting the early stages of a process rather than only examining the end result.
- Make Sure You’re Telling a Story in Everything You Do
People crave narrative. It’s what makes life fun. Everything you do in your business should be telling a story. Asking yourself the “why” in all things can help bring that story to light. But you should be careful to author your own story. If there isn’t a compelling narrative to what you’re doing, then you won’t be able to get people to buy in to it regardless of how good your product, service or offering may be.
- Give Your Inner Child a Seat at the Table
As I mentioned, I turned 50 this year—but in many situations I feel like the young Jeff who got a rush from his lemonade stand with entrepreneurial visions in his head. Business should be fun. Your passions should come from a pure place. When you’re making decisions or working on improving your brand, make sure to tap into that inner child to make sure that it’s true to both who you are but also appeals to the inner child of your customers.
- Let Your Loved Ones Be Your Compass
In almost everything that I do, I use my family as my compass. “Is this good enough for my family?” “Would I buy this for my daughters?” “Would my family be proud of me for making this decision?” In business, there are many difficult decisions you are going to face, but it’s important to be able to be transparent with your loved ones and know that they support your journey.
- Provide the Fertilizer for Idea Growth
I know many CEOs who complain about not getting enough ideas from their teams. My first question is always to ask if they provide an environment where ideas are welcome. As a CEO, you need to realize that your team will have some hesitancy in volunteering criticism, solutions or ideas. It’s a vital part of your role to create an open atmosphere where you encourage that type of thinking and involvement in the business. Cultivate it.
- Your Time Is Worth More than Your Money
Writing a check for a good cause is easy. But investing your own time to help make a positive impact almost always goes much further. Don’t just throw money at things and hope they improve, be present and engage.
- Be An Entrepreneurial Explorer
When researching and looking for inspiration, many CEOs will get trapped within their own industry. Go further. Explore music, art, completely different businesses, in order to find more ways to improve and grow your own business.
- Plan for Spontaneity
There is danger in getting too lost in a routine. It’s extremely important to shake yourself out of it frequently and build in open time for spontaneity. If you feel yourself going through the motions or having a “Groundhog Day” feeling of déjà vu—stop and immediately go to a different place, do a different thing, heck just sit in a different chair. Build spontaneity into your routine.
Jeff Sinelli serves as founder, CEO, and chief vibe officer of Sinelli Concepts and its subsidiary brands. That includes creating and growing iconic brands, including Which Wich Superior Sandwiches, Genghis Grill, Paciugo Gelato & Caffe, Burguesa Brands, and Supernova Coffee. Aggregately, these concepts have grown both domestically and internationally to nearly 1,000 locations.