T.W. Wright’s first job as a kid was washing trucks with a pressure washer he’d saved up to buy. When Wright was 19, that gig became a bonafide business when a local steel mill contracted him to clean all of their equipment on an ongoing basis. Wright would continue to grow his washing business for years, taking on new clients and employees, until he sold the business when he was 41.
Unemployed for the first time in his adult life, Wright was eager to take on his next venture. He knew he wanted to own another business but was apprehensive about building another by himself, so when a friend pitched him on partnering to open a franchise, he was immediately intrigued.
“At my age, I didn’t want to dive into something completely new and build a company from scratch,” Wright said. “I appreciate that with a franchise. All the hard work had already been done to build the company.”
Wright’s friend recommended they look into Penn Station East Coast Subs, a sandwich restaurant he’d become a fan of as a customer. Wright, whose parents owned a car-hop restaurant when he was growing up, says he liked the idea of getting into the restaurant business, and he saw a number of unique upsides in Penn Station’s model.
“I knew the restaurant business,” he said. “I also knew that I didn’t want to be open early, I knew that I didn’t want to manage waiters, and I didn’t want knives and forks and all the extra work that comes with a full-service restaurant. I wanted something simple, with a strong product.”
Wright says Penn Station offered exactly that. So, he and his new business partner opened their first Penn Station restaurant in Ashland, Kentucky in 2002.
16 years later, Wright now owns four Penn Station locations throughout Kentucky and West Virginia. He’s also expanded his portfolio to include four Moe’s Cantinas, two Slim Chickens and one Sbarro.
Wright says he decided to branch out to other brands as opportunities presented themselves, opportunities he saw as complementary to Penn Station, which he still considers the bedrock of his multi-brand operation.
“Of all of my restaurant concepts, Penn Station is the most profitable,” he said. "It’s designed that way. The footprint is smaller than my other restaurants, the operations are simpler and the franchisor doesn’t nickel and dime you; they are very conservative and work hard to keep ROI up and monthly costs down.”
As Wright oversees his expansive operations, the work of actually managing the four Penn Station restaurants has been largely up to managing owner Ann Vanover, who Wright brought on as a partner more than a decade ago.
Wright found Vanover through an intensive search for a qualified managing owner. Vanover had been working as a general manager at a Papa John’s when one of her contacts in the franchise’s corporate office, a friend of Wright’s, recommended her to Wright.
“[Wright] called me out of the blue,” Vanover recalled. “I thought he was crazy! I didn’t know why anyone would be looking to bring me on as an owner for a business, but he’d heard I was capable, and he was persistent.”
While Wright manages the growth of all of his businesses, Vanover works directly with the four Penn Stations, spending most of her time in the restaurants. Vanover has not been a disappointment as she was voted by her peers to serve on the Franchisee Advisory Council and was also awarded the title Franchisee of the Year in 2017.
“I bounce around between the restaurants,” she said. “The goal is to hit each at least a few times a week, but if there is a shortage somewhere, I’ll spend more time there. If there’s a new staff member at one of the restaurants, I might spend a little extra time there. My primary goal is to make the general managers better at their jobs so they can run things smoothly without me, but sometimes it comes down to just helping a store making sandwiches if they need an extra hand.”
As a managing owner, Vanover says her job is made significantly easier by the support she receives from the franchisor.
“Penn Station has done an amazing job with their systems and operations, and they are great at negotiating prices and contracts to make us more profitable,” she said. “As an owner, that makes my job much easier. The systems are easy to follow, and if you follow them, you will be successful. It’s just that simple.”
Wright agrees, adding that Vanover’s strict adherence to the Penn Station model is exactly what’s made her, and in turn him, so successful.
“You’ve got to have a good person running your stores,” he said. “How well they do is how well you do. I’ve got Ann, and she’s tough as nails. She’s extremely good at what I call ‘the book.’ If Penn Station says something should be done a certain way, that’s the way she does it, and that’s the main reason all four of our restaurants have remained so strong.”
While Wright and Vanover don’t have any immediate plans for growth, both say they haven’t reached their ceiling yet.
“We’re always keeping our eyes open for new opportunities,” Vanover said. “We don’t have a new territory available to us right now, but I feel like we’re not done.”
Wright says when the opportunity for expansion does arrive, he’s focused foremost on growing his Penn Station system.
“At the end of the day, you make more profit from Penn Station than other concepts,” he said. “Even if another restaurant does more volume, the expenses with Penn Station are so low that you are going to take home a larger profit. And in this business, what else matters?”