Inside 'Top Chef' star Tom Colicchio's plan to build a fast-casual sandwich empire

Famed restaurateur to franchise 'Wichcraft chain

When famed restauranteur Tom Colicchio opened his first ‘Wichcraft store in 2003, fast-casual restaurants and food sustainability were still fringe concepts to most eaters. Years later, the “Top Chef” judge is counting on their mainstream popularity to fuel a franchising boom for the chain.

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Colicchio, 57, began looking earlier this year for experienced franchisees outside New York City, where the high-end sandwich shop already has four successful locations. While a previous attempt to expand the chain’s footprint ended in several store closures, the chef behind fine-dining establishments like Craft and Riverpark is confident that the brand itself is a proven concept capable of staving off competition in the fast-casual scene that grows more crowded by the year.

“The market is crowded, but we’ve lasted 15 years,” Colicchio told FOX Business. “Even though our footprint is smaller, we’ve learned a lot. The big problem, going back to 2003, was I treated it like a full-service restaurant and it’s not. It’s a very different business and it took a while for us to understand that.”

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Chipotle, Panera Bread, Five Guys and Dig Inn are just a few of ‘Wichcraft’s competitors in a fast-casual restaurant industry that surpassed 25,000 store units in operation as of fall 2018, according to NPD Group. Competition is especially fierce in New York City, where the skyrocketing cost of rents has left operators with little margin for error.

Colicchio is taking a methodical approach to franchise ‘Wichcraft, a chain that touts premium sandwiches made from sustainable, locally sourced and in-season ingredients. His team has set a soft goal of 10 new store openings in the first year, with plans to seek out franchisees with proven track records and knowledge of their home markets.

“I think we were ahead of the curve in terms of fast-casual food that was healthier. It was something we never really talked about because my feeling was, that was my brand,” Colicchio said. “Now we realize, in a crowded market, we need to stand out and talk about that stuff. We don’t do a BLT in New York until mid-July, when tomatoes are coming off the vine.”

The cost of entry is steep. To qualify to franchise a ‘Wichcraft location, applicants must have a net worth of at least $1 million and at least $300,000 in liquid capital. In addition, they have to cover a $45,000 franchise fee and pay a six percent royalty.

‘Wichcraft quickly grew beyond New York City after its 2003 debut, with more than a dozen locations in multiple cities fueled by word-of-mouth in an era before social media and hashtags. However, business had markedly slowed as of 2016, forcing several store closures.

To turn his business around, Colicchio got back to basics. He overhauled the management structure at ‘Wichcraft, rebooted the chain’s branding and pared down its store imprint to just four locations. Existing stores focused on speeding up customer service and revamped training for employees.

TOP CHEF -- "The Tao of Macau" Episode 1614 -- Pictured: (l-r) Tom Colicchio, Abe Conlon, Kelsey Barnard - (Photo by: Carmo Correia/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

Colicchio is aiming to concentrate any new franchises along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, allowing for easy travel for menu launches and key training sessions. While ‘Wichcraft stores in New York City relied on a commissary kitchen and pre-prepared menu items that only required reheating, new locations will have the equipment necessary for on-site cooking.

As a result, menus will be primed to take advantage of popular food trends, such as Nashville hot chicken sandwiches that require a fryer to properly prepare.

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Colicchio and his team have retuned their thinking as to what makes a restaurant successful. In the past, he said, ‘Wichcraft stores were opened with the assumption that they, like Craft, would be a destination for foodies, rather than a convenient stop for people on their lunch break or looking for a quick dinner.

“What we learned is that locations were a lot more important than we thought they were,” Colicchio said. “We never would look at a location and stand out in front with a clicker and see how many people are walking by between the hours of 10 o’clock to 3 o’clock in the afternoon, just to get an idea of pedestrian count. It never factored into our equation at all.”

'Wichcraft is just one of several projects occupying Colicchio's time. Aside from a restaurant empire with locations in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, he has served as head judge on every season of "Top Chef," Bravo's culinary competition series. Production on the show requires roughly six weeks per year.

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To balance his busy career and family life, Colicchio has learned to delegate to his team to determine the best use of his time.

"I always say, I have to get to the point where I’m responsible for everything but not responsible for anything," Colicchio said. "The day-to-day, I have great people that I’m constantly in touch with and I rely on them to tell me when I need to be there.”