Four and a half years ago, Ballas—who has a Certified Commercial Investment Member designation—started studying the real estate market. He noticed a trend in which rates were quickly increasing and leases were moving toward a 10-year minimum. At the time, East Coast had a roughly 4,500 square-foot store design, but the brand started reengineering the model in both decor and size.
The company tested 3,000 square feet, and East Coast soon realized the smaller stores were able to maintain sales. Other locations underwent remodeling, and new stores have been dubbed 2.0. There’s one store opening soon that’s 2,300 square feet with 80 seats. Because of the foresight, franchisees were able to pivot much easier during the pandemic, Ballas explains.
Additionally, two years ago East Coast began toying with pay-at-the-table features. It was launched last year on a voluntary basis, and due to the emphasis on contactless payment throughout the crisis, all stores will be required to have the option.
The challenge is leveraging all of those plans to retain the off-premises bump. Part of this involves redesigning hostess stands and bars in future stores to create a different carryout mechanism and asking landlords for designated to-go parking spaces.
“If you as a brand can let your dining room scale back up at its pace and you can retain 15 percent, 20 percent, 12 percent, 8 percent, whatever the number is, of your off-premises gain you had during the pandemic, what will your model look like from a year from now? It’s going to be stronger,” Ballas says. “Your franchisees will be stronger. But you have to have compelling data of how you did that. You can’t just hope it’s going to happen.”
Seven stores are coming in 2021, and East Coast started selling franchises in September—something Ballas didn’t think was possible a few months ago. The company is seeking opportunities in North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.
He adds that when the restaurant had enough data to validate a trajectory that’s healthy enough for potential investors, it was ready to enter the marketplace. It’s resulted in more franchising activity in one month than the brand saw in all of 2019.
Ballas doesn’t expect the industry to return to normal until the middle of 2021. But when it does, he’s confident that East Coast Wings will be a prime destination.
“The resiliency of the American people is that they want to live,” Ballas says. “They want to do what they want to do even if you have to do it with a mask.”