Food With Thought: How One Franchise Is Making the World a Better Place Through Sandwiches

Food With Thought: How One Franchise Is Making the World a Better Place Through Sandwiches

There is such thing as a free lunch: Jeff Sinelli of Which Wich.

Image credit: photos © Sarah Wilson
This story appears in the March 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

The problem with being generous is that eventually word gets out. That’s what Jeff Sinelli, founder of the 11-year-old Dallas-based sandwich franchise Which Wich, discovered. 

Philanthropy was always a core element of his concept, with each of his 300-plus franchises supporting two to three charities per year, and corporate pitching in toward dozens more. Eventually, requests for donations got to be overwhelming. 

“There were so many people asking for contributions, we could have hired a full-time staff member just to deal with it,” Sinelli recalls. “I’d be at dinner with my wife talking about it, and we’d just say, ‘There has to be a better way.’”

He found that solution after meeting Kip Tindell, CEO of The Container Store, at the Conscious Capitalism CEO Summit in 2013. Sinelli’s business card includes the line “Making the world a better place,” and Tindell asked him how he was doing that.

“We have our mission statement on our cards, on our walls, in books,” Sinelli says, “but nobody had ever called me on it.”

A thought he’d had for years finally gelled. “I answered him almost subconsciously,” Sinelli says. “I told him we were going to buy trucks and give out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and that’s how we were going to make the world a better place.”

Thus was born Project PB&J. Under the initiative, which launched in January 2014, Which Wich stores donate one sandwich to a local charity for each PB&J sold, while corporate makes a donation to a global charity. 

We got Sinelli to spread the word on how his gooey gift initiative works. 

There is such thing as  a free lunch: Jeff Sinelli of Which Wich.

Why not just give money?

The thing that tore my heart and guts out about donating money was that after we wrote a check, there was a sense of emptiness. There was no connection to where it was going. We sent it almost blindly and hoped it did something good. But with a sandwich … My first day back in Dallas after the Conscious Capitalism Summit, I made six PB&J sandwiches, walked out the door and there were two people in need. I made the first gift right there.

How does it work?

Each PB&J sale is recorded at the store level; the POS system tallies it. Through our back-end software, we know at the corporate level how many have been sold each day and each month. It’s our responsibility to donate through our global fund, and our franchisees’ responsibility to donate locally. Since we launched this, sales are up, morale is up and energy is up in our stores. It’s a mood-lifter. A lot of customers don’t even take the PB&Js they buy—we call them virtual PB&Js.

What has been the reaction?

It’s been amazing. Our franchisees, vendors and suppliers have a cause they can align with, and that’s easy for the brand to understand. 

We’ve had pro athletes and singers calling from out of the blue asking how they can help. We had an ad company donate 30 people for three days straight. It’s been somewhat magical. It turns out my daughter’s birthday is on National PB&J Day. Now it’s something we can celebrate together her whole life.

How many sandwiches are you giving out?

We really just started, but our stretch goal for 2015 is to give out more than 1 million sandwiches. It’s been a fun way to give back. It’s so satisfying getting a roomful of people together making PB&Js. They put love into the sandwiches, and there’s something great about physically touching what you’re donating.

Edition: October 2016

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