The coronavirus has led CEO and founder Sam Ballas to change how the emerging chain approaches future growth.
While the coronavirus has signaled difficult days ahead for many restaurants, it’s marked an inflection point for others, like emerging chain East Coast Wings + Grill. That’s not to say the North Carolina–based brand hasn’t felt the pains of converting from a full-service model to a totally off-premises operation, but it has pushed founder and CEO Sam Ballas to reconsider the brand’s trajectory.
“We will start in late Q2 getting back on the strategic plan we started working on last December for the franchise growth of East Coast Wings + Grill. We’ve of course put that on the shelf right now because this [crisis] is more important,” Ballas says. “Without a vaccine I don’t think it would be prudent to sell franchises and open up more locations until we know we’re not going to have a relapse of this in 2021. That's the biggest fear I have.”
Ballas was one of the more proactive chain leaders when the coronavirus hit the U.S. in March. He had been paying attention to the virus’s impact overseas and then on the Northeast. Within the first two weeks of March, the team had distributed not one, but two white papers among its operators that cited data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and served as a guidepost for how to operate under the forthcoming dine-in bans that would sweep the country.
Being in the wing category gave the brand a certain advantage since its core product was often consumed off-premises for special events and gatherings. Still it was far from the majority of East Coast Wings’ business (Ballas estimates it accounted for about 22 percent of orders prior to COVID-19). The brand moved quickly to a curbside and delivery model in March, and the majority of its 38 locations have maintained that model since then.
The coronavirus brought with it both legal restrictions and anxiety, and most restaurant leaders assert that the latter could linger long after states phase back into business as usual. With consumers hesitant to return to their usual dining habits, many concepts are changing their core operations to grow their off-premises options, embrace contactless technology, and streamline their menus for cash-strapped customers. While these are certainly issues the leadership is discussing, East Coast Wings + Grill won’t overhaul the brand itself, but rather its expansion plan. Had the chain ever flirted with the idea of venturing far beyond its Southeast base, the pandemic quickly nullified them.
“This will be the real firecracker comment: This pandemic has allowed me to really look at East Coast Wings + Grill and its strengths and weaknesses. … It's probably time for the CEO/founding guy, which is me, to say that over the next 5–10 years, East Coast Wings + Grill is going to look like more of a super-regional than a national model,” Ballas says.
Currently the brand ranges as far north as Philadelphia, as far south as Tampa Bay, Florida, and as far west as Tennessee, save for a single location in Texas. Ballas says the company will still support that Lone Star State operator’s growth, but it won’t seek out distant, new partnerships. Keeping the business geographically concentrated helps East Coast Wings pivot quicker should some future crisis unfold; it also streamlines the brand’s supply chain and operations.
“In reality there’s enough market share in that piece of the United States that this brand … may have as many units as some of the national players,” Ballas says. “By making that call now and start putting that [message] in the marketplace late this year and next year, I think it'll make the brand much stronger because it will help us not only with supply chain focus, but also with managing any type of attacks like this again.”
Once East Coast Wings is ready to once again move forward with growth, Ballas says the unfortunate consequences of the pandemic could play, in some respects, to the brand’s advantage. Like many industry leaders, Ballas cites the sky-high real estate prices of recent years as a continual pain point for entrepreneurs. Now that businesses across all sectors are shuttering their doors permanently, the market prices should dip accordingly. This shift will be especially favorable for myfrii, a gourmet french fry fast casual under East Coast Wings’ purview.
“After all the re-engineering from the initial purchase of [myfrii] last year, what a blessing in disguise for that brand this has been. The brand had an uphill battle with space and finding a fair real estate space and cost,” Ballas says. “That brand is going to take advantage in the aftermath of being more strategic in that growth model and its rollout as a much less expensive model than East Coast Wings + Grill … It’s going to be what the investor base is looking at in terms of franchising after COVID-19 concludes.”
For the immediate future, Ballas will keep the brand flexible while also tempering his franchisees’ and industry peers’ expectations for just how soon business—and life—will return to normal. In the meantime, he’s taking pride in the “brain muscle” his team has exercised amid the crisis.
“Watching your employees, your exec team, your ops team, and even your franchisees has been not only a humbling experience, but it’s also been an uplifting one,” Ballas says. “You’re thinking, ‘Wow, we really did all that. We really built a COVID-19 operation model.’ The franchisees embraced it and are surviving. It’s kind of like—and excuse this—one of those holy s--- moments where you go, man, where did that brain muscle come from?”