This success led Ballas to a larger question. Could East Coast Wings thrive with a model that was even more traditionally fast casual? One where customers would walk up to the POS system, pay for their orders, get a beverage, and wait for their food?
The company is currently exploring this question as well as unveiling a more industrial, younger look.
Ballas says several stores have broken $3 million in sales in rural North Carolina. Some franchisees have more than doubled their revenue in a 12-year run with the brand. With new franchise candidates, East Coast Wings looks solely for footprints between 2,400 and 3,000 square feet.
“I think, quite frankly, that this inflection disruption with COVID has changed everybody's perception when it comes to food, period,” Ballas says. “And I don't think it's ever going to be like it used to be in the old days, and why should it? I think that disruption creates people that have the opportunity to put more shoulders against the wheel in companies and more brain power in debate because it creates better results. It creates better innovation. It creates a better evolution.”
In 2022, franchisees will get to choose between the larger volume full-service restaurant model and hybrid units that average 2,300 to 3,000 square feet, Ballas says. As more data comes in, the brand is also looking later in the year to launch its traditional fast-casual franchise model in which customers fully order their meals with a cashier instead of a server.
No matter the model, Ballas says the food quality will remain the same. East Coast Wings has been the “800 pound gorilla” across franchise systems, he says. And this fast-casual transformation is an extension of East Coast Wings’ current positioning.
“Unit level economics has always been our beating drum,” Ballas says. “In that process, as a casual dine, we made a commitment at the launch of the brand: we would grow the brand as far as market share and surrounding states at a pace that we can sustain that drumbeat.”
In July 2020, Ballas was quoted for saying that it wasn’t prudent to sell franchises due to the uncertainty of COVID-19. He had to recant his theory, he says, after he witnessed his own brand and several others surge ahead with higher sales than 2019.
In 2022, East Coast Wings plans to open seven locations and double the footprint in around three years.
“This is going to sound terrible, but it's been a great two years of epiphanies,” Ballas says. “It's been that way for us because we do embrace inflection. We know we do a lot of great things, but we're not immune to inflection. We are very good at taking disruption, and then tackling that beast into something that we can tame, and come out the other end positive.”
Ballas says consumer behavior has changed. Even though founders can get emotionally attached, they can’t let that get in the way of the brand’s ability to grow.
“We can't sit on the sidelines and just stay status quo,” Ballas says. “You have to adapt and you have to evolve.”