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Wayback Burgers Weighs Its Options

Filed under Business, Q&A

John Carter opened his first Jake’s burger restaurant in 1991. The name became Jake’s Wayback Burgers in 2010 and then simply Wayback Burgers. Now Carter is ready to take the 100-unit, Conn.-based chain to the next step: He named The Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs its exclusive advisor on growth opportunities, including a possible IPO in 2016. spoke with John Carter about the concept’s future.

It can be difficult to know when the time is right to make a move forward. How and when did you know the time was right for Wayback Burgers?
If they’re prudent, I think every business owner will step back occasionally and look at where they are in the marketplace. So there wasn’t a day when I woke up and said, “An IPO is what we need to do.” We reached out to [The Oxford Center CEO] Cliff Oxford, retained him as our advisor and we’re letting him lead us through this process.

I just know we need to explore all the growth opportunities that are out there, and it’s going to be up to Cliff to navigate us through that.

There have been a few other high-profile IPOs recently, Shake Shack among them. Do their experiences contribute to thinking the time is right to consider a public offering or did they at all make you hesitate?
I’m aware of what’s there, of course, but we have really leaned heavily on The Oxford Center to make a recommendation. After talking with us and evaluating our company, this segment and the market, their recommendation was that we at least explore the options open to us.

Wayback Burgers October Burger of the Month

Looking at that marketplace, what makes you confident about Wayback’s position?
For one, I believe our cost of entry is the lowest of any strip national chain or even regional chain. As a company we have no debt, and the management team we have in place is phenomenal. We have opportunities in nontraditional spaces; we have relationships with Walmart, the Navy Exchange and Aramark. So I think the segment is doing well and we’re positioned well within the segment.

How do you define your niche?
The market keeps getting cut up into smaller and smaller niches, but we consider ourselves fast casual, and that segment is doing well. And then the burger segment within fast casual is very hot.

We don’t see that changing. Especially globally. A component of our strength is the international deals we have; the master franchisees and partnerships. I think that’s unique for our size to have that much global extension.

There are going to be a proliferation of burger concepts. Any time you have a segment that’s doing well, you’re going to have competitors. It’s the natural process of business. But I think with our low cost of entry, lack of debt, great franchisees and that international opportunity will make us strong within the segment. So I don’t worry about our positioning running out of room.

Do you see menu opportunities to explore?
We’re always looking at that. We hired a well-respected chef, Dale Miller, and he’s working with us to continually improve menu items, streamline our menu mix and just improve the product. I don’t know that there’s going to be any revolution: our core products of burgers, shakes and fries will remain. But within those categories, we’re very aware of and focused on the trends.

Availability of beer and wine define many fast-casual concepts. Will you move in that direction?
We do allow it and have a couple of locations that serve beer and wine. It’s not something that we’ve promoted as part of our market positioning, but it is available to franchisees and is something we’ll continue to allow on a case-by-case basis.

Where are you looking for domestic expansion?
We’re always going to have strength on the East Coast; I started there [in Newark, Del.] But we’ve opened in California and Texas will be great for us. We’re scheduled to develop 50 in Texas over the next 20 years. Nationally we’re going to go where the franchisees want to go, but we have this great international opportunity, too. If you look at our development schedule with our master franchisees overseas, we have about 100 units slated to open internationally.

We open about two stores a month. We opened in North Carolina last month and the week before at Goose Creek Naval Base in South Carolina. So we’ll add 25 units this year, and that’s been pretty consistent since 2009 when we started franchising seriously. Combine that with the international development and we’re at 350 stores signed and under contract.

Do the spikes in the minimum wage in some markets influence your expansion plans?
I just believe that we’re all in this together; everyone in the foodservice industry faces the same challenges. We have to be competitive within our segment but we’re just good at running efficient operations.