Tom Colicchio is reworking ’Wichcraft, a fast-casual sandwich chain he founded in 2003, with redesigned front- and back-of-house, a logo that indicates the chain’s farm-to-table approach, and a professional suite of new hires, including vice presidents of operations and finance and directors of brand marketing and human resources.
Colicchio, who operates eight upscale and fine-dining restaurants, and is also head judge of Bravo TV’s cooking competition show Top Chef, says he opened the first ’Wichcraft 13 years ago in a rather haphazard fashion.
“There was a space next door to what was Craftbar [another of his restaurants], and it was a one-year lease, so we didn’t put a lot into it. We just kind of slapped something together,” he recalls.
’Wichcraft started as a fast-casual operating for which Colicchio used the same high quality of ingredients he used at his other restaurants — Beachcraft, Craft, Craftsteak, Craftbar, Colicchio & Sons, Heritage Steak and Riverpark.
“From day one the menu was really well received, [but] we had no intention of doing a second one or a third one,” Colicchio says. “And then we started to grow when opportunities were there, without really looking too much at where the stores were, whether they had the right pedestrian counts and things like that. We weren’t really sophisticated about what we were doing in terms of growing the business.
“The food was still really good, [but] even in terms of marketing or design, there was nothing to suggest that we were buying from farmers, or to suggest that we were making sandwiches.”
Still, the chain grew to 15 locations at its height — 13 in New York City, one in San Francisco and one in Las Vegas. Meanwhile chains such as Sweetgreen, based in Washington, D.C., and Mendocino Farms in Southern California, with more sophisticated messaging came to fill the farm-to-table space at the high end of the fast-casual segment.
“We took a step back and said, ‘Look, we have this great brand, and we’re not using it the way we should. We’re not telling the message of why it’s great’,” Colicchio observes.
“We closed a bunch of stores that weren’t performing and went to look at everything from branding and marketing.”
Colicchio hired an executive team: Dan Guaricci as vice president of operations, Emily Gopstein as vice president of finance, Julia Blickenstaff as director of human resources and Cristina Dennstedt as director of brand marketing.
He also brought cofounder Sisha Ortuzar, who was doing double duty as chef at ’Wichcraft and at another Colicchio restaurant, Riverpark, back to full-time duties at the fast-casual chain. In July, they opened the first new ’Wichcraft in six years in the lower Manhattan neighborhood of Tribeca, bringing its current unit count up to nine.
The new 24-seat location has brighter décor, with white tile walls, natural sunlight and a color palette in shades of green with accents of orange, blue and yellow that Dennstedt says draw inspiration from “old farm signage that has been sun aged.”
The new logo shows a hand grasping newly harvested root vegetables and the slogan, “From seed to sandwich.”
The new menu also has new organic egg bowls and grain bowls, and a build-your-own sandwich section that’s facilitated by an upgraded kitchen.
The new kitchen has two lines, allowing them to get food out, ideally in four to five minutes. “That’s our goal,” Colicchio says, “where before we were operating at like 12, 13 minutes.”
The new location also has local beer and wine on tap.
Colicchio plans to retrofit current locations with the new kitchen, where there’s space. He’s hoping to open a brand new ’Wichcraft at Grand Central Terminal this fall and recently signed a lease on 38th Street and Broadway.
Outside of New York City, Colicchio hopes to expand on “the Amtrak corridor,” to other northeastern cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and maybe Baltimore.
He says he had no immediate plans to start franchising.
“I think we need to do a few more before we franchise,” he explained, adding that he might consider it down the road for markets where he and his team wouldn’t likely set up operations on their own.
“Are we ever going to get to Raleigh-Durham? Probably not, and so finding someone who is a good franchisee who is interested in doing something in an area we’ll never get to, it makes sense for growth,” he adds. “So I’m not saying no, but we’re not doing it just yet.”