Jake’s Wayback Burgers came within a fry’s length of unseating Blanc Burgers + Bottles as winner of this year’s Burger Brackets. Finishing second is never completely satisfying, but its hundred of votes show that the chain has amassed a cadre of loyalists who love its triple-patty Big Jake burger (at right), chicken, hot dogs, house-made potato chips and the rest of its menu.
The 26-location, Connecticut-based chain that began simply as Jake’s Hamburgers isn’t new, but it enters a new phase of growth as it establishes its expanded name and menu. John Eucalitto, president of Jake’s Franchising LLC, talked to BurgerBusiness.com about the difficulties of finding the right name and building a brand in a very competitive market.
Congratulations on the Burger Brackets showing. You folks came close.
It was fun. It’s a good idea.
It’s a way to get exposure for some smaller concepts trying to make a name for themselves. And in your case, it’s a new name. Give me some background on the reasons for adopting the “Wayback” name.
Jake’s Hamburgers has been around since 1991. It was always under the Jake’s name.
Who was Jake?
Yeah, that’s going to be a trivia question some day. There is no individual named Jake in our organization, so it’s not a specific person.
So not your great-grandfather?
No, no. John Carter is the founder and he’s still active today. He started it in 1991. He was a CPA working for a cabinet-maker that downsized. He was looking for something to do and he decided to open a burger joint. The first Jake’s opened in Newark, Del., and he just chose the Jake’s name. He didn’t research the name. He liked it and he just ran with it.
Sounds like trouble ahead.
Well, there are a lot of Jake’s out there. There’s Jake’s Seafood and Jake’s Bar & Grill that coexist under the Jake’s name. There’s also a place by you in Chicago called Jake’s Pizza and they have a registered trademark for that name. But any trademark for Jake’s Hamburgers wasn’t going to happen in the eyes of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. John knew that. He spent a lot of time talking to lawyers and finally decided it didn’t matter because he wasn’t going to grow beyond his little area [in Delware].
When did that change?
About 12 years later when he decided to franchise. And his decision on the trademark [problem] was to open in certain states and develop common-law rights so he didn’t have to deal with the trademark issue. Fast forward to 2008. That’s when I met John. A friend of mine, Bill Chemero, and I worked out a partnership to develop the Jake’s franchise company.
When we started digging deep we realized we had to change the name and take care of that issue once and for all. First, we worked with a designer who came up with the look and feel of the new Jake’s.
What did you revise?
We had two goals in mind. One was to reduce the cost of entry and the second was to enhance the brand image. The original look was like a beach resort. Simple. Clean. We wanted to make it a bit more comfortable and reduce the cost of entry. So we changed the kitchen, some of the equipment, and so on.
And the name?
We hired a marketing technology company to help with the name. Over the years, John had been asking people for suggestions on what to change the name to, and he’d gathered about 2,000 names. They were all over the map. We ended up settling on four or five, and then went through the long process of seeing what would be trademarkable. We had a great lawyer who said he thought we could still use Jake’s if we put in another word or two with it. Someone threw out “Wayback.”
At first we thought, what does that mean? But the more we thought, the more we realized all that we could do with it. One of our stores sponsors a Little League team and we had a sign on the centerfield fence that says “Hit it way back here and get a free Jake’s burger!”
So you knew the name was a home run, so to speak?
Yeah, we knew there were things we could do with it. It took us about a year to go through the whole process and get Jake’s Wayback Burgers approved. We started the next process of opening the new stores with the Jake’s Wayback name and now all the cups and the sandwich wraps are being switched out. Hopefully within a month or so we’ll be switching all the old signage to the Jake’s Wayback name.
Can you share one lesson learned from the name-change process?
Bite the bullet and do it right from the beginning. Spend the time, spend the money, be patient and get a great lawyer to do the research in advance so there are no surprises later. We did a lot of homework to make sure there wouldn’t be trouble. There are a couple of Waybacks and we can’t go into their towns because they have common-law rights, but no trademark.
What brought you to burgers and Jake’s originally?
I started in the food franchise business for a while. I started with Blimpie, which was a small sandwich chain when I started. I became a franchisee and area developer for Connecticut and into New York State as well. And then I left there and met up with owners of Edible Arrangements, another Connecticut-based chain. It was small then and they needed franchisee support, which is the role I took. When I left there, my business partner Bill Chemero and I decided we wanted to find something that could be ours. If it was going to be successful or going to get screwed up, it was going to be us doing it.
How had you heard of Jake’s?
Back with Blimpie I had done research on competitors, so I knew the brand and loved their burgers. I was introduced by a friend to John Carter in Delaware and we talked. And at one point, he said, “So what’s it going to take to get something going?” I told him, “I have a list of your six locations in Delaware and I’m going to eat at all six and try a different product at each one. When I’m finished, if I like everything then we’re going to do business.”
Were you evaluating the product, the décor, the staff?
To begin with, I believe you have to have a great product and a great business model. And John called me about 3 that afternoon and said, “So what do you think? Are we doing this?” I said, ‘We’re in.” I ate in all six restaurants and then I had to do a conference call in my car in the parking lot of the last restaurant. And I fell asleep in the middle of the call.
I guess that’s an endorsement of the food!
Well, he had a great model. I saw a lot of potential. There were changes that needed to be made, certainly, but the food was great, and the brand had a loyal following, really a cult-like following in the Delaware market.
How have you increased that potential?
The biggest thing we did was to reduce the costs for franchisees. We’ve built stores as low as $140,000 or so, all in. We try to take advantage of second-generation spaces. If you’ve got a Starbucks or a Quiznos that’s closed, we’ll take the space. We’re not going to strip the whole thing down if we don’t need to. We’ll make it work.
What did you change in the back of the house?
We eliminated a lot of the prep work in the back. One thing that scared me was the prep work on beef when you get raw product in and you have to portion it out to a certain weight every time. I couldn’t see us being a national brand with that kind of concern. So I went back to our beef supplier and now they make us signature-size “pucks,” balls of beef. No one touches them. We make sure they’re the right temperature when they come in and while they’re here. They have expiration dates so we can put them right on the grill without being handled or prepped. It eliminated labor but more importantly it eliminated food-safety concerns.
You’ve added a Burger of the Month, I know. How else have you expanded the menu?
We’ve tweaked some products. We have turkey burgers, veggie burgers and some chicken sandwiches. We just rolled out house-made potato chips that are doing really well. They’re a little lighter than french fries and lower cost and a great product. Next we’ll add flavored potato chips and have a Chip of the Month like we do with burgers.
They’re served warm and they’re fantastic.
Do you have concerns about the continued viability of the burger-menu restaurant category?
Yeah, I do. I always do. We get a new competitor every day, it seems. We like our diverse menu but we’re constantly tweaking it to be competitive. We get creative and different with the Burger of the Month. We had a Reuben Burger that was different and sold well for St. Patrick’s Day. For Lent we added a Wayback Cod sandwich.
We try to stay creative but we know that we need more. We have a couple salads, but no real “wow” salad. But we have a couple of [salad] ideas lined up that we’ll roll out. We know we can’t just be burgers if we want to be around for another 20 years.