Jimmy John Liautaud was born the second of four children in Arlington Heights, Illinois on January 12, 1964. His mother, Gina, a Lithuanian immigrant, was an elementary school teacher. Jimmy describes his mother as a survivor! She was a little girl in her native Lithuania when Germany invaded, and after two years in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany, she came to America through Ellis Island, worked hard and earned her bachelor’s degree. His father, Big Jim, was an inventor, entrepreneur, and educator, who started his career as an encyclopedia salesman before launching a plastics molding business. The beginnings and failings of his many ventures took the family on a roller coaster of highs and lows. Big Jim’s career required him to travel extensively, and with his mom teaching full-time, Jimmy and his siblings took on added responsibilities. His father was forced to file bankruptcy twice, which took a toll on the family.
“Financially, we were living close to the edge,” says Jimmy. “My mom did what she could to stretch pennies until the next paycheck. I knew how bad it was when she’d switch to powdered milk in our cereal. Boy, I hated that stuff!”
By the time Jimmy was a freshman in high school, his dad began to do better financially. His folks enrolled him at Elgin Academy School, a private prep school. Jimmy was now surrounded by upper middle-class kids with plenty of self-confidence and struggled to fit in. He was a fish out of water. He was hardly considered a star pupil by his teachers; he drank, smoked, and skipped class. He had some of the worst grades in his class and teachers grew tired of his rebellious behavior, even calling to have him expelled. However, Jim Lyons, the dean of discipline, went to bat for Jimmy and gave Elgin Academy an ultimatum, “If he goes, I go.” Jim saw Jimmy’s behavior as insecurity. Jim mentored Jimmy, he believed in him, and that helped build Jimmy’s confidence. They developed a mutually respectful relationship and became lifelong friends.
“I was at this fancy school and I felt out of place, so I rebelled. But Jim Lyons put his arm around me. He cared about me. He’d say, ‘Jimmy, don’t say that; it’s not classy.’ And he’d tell me I could do whatever I wanted in life. He told me that a lot. And by the time I was a senior, I started to believe him.” – Jimmy John Liautaud, New York Times
Early Jimmy John’s
Jimmy graduated second to last in his class at Elgin Academy School in 1982. His test scores were not much better and his options for higher education were minimal. His father was a big believer in the discipline that the Army provides young people. He wanted Jimmy to enlist but Jimmy wanted to open his own business. Liautaud asked his father for a $25,000 loan, and he agreed on one condition. If his business didn’t succeed, Jimmy would join the Army, and if it did, his father would own 48%. He also told his son that he could not live at home. “It’s time for you to fly,” his father said. Liautaud opted for starting a business and got to work.
Loving the Chicago-style hotdogs like Portillo’s made, Jimmy planned to open a hotdog stand. After graduation in 1982, he drove up to Chicago and traveled to various hot dog stands to learn about the business and to put together a list of menu items and equipment he would need to purchase. Jimmy was disappointed to learn that he needed about $45,000 for the equipment alone. He told his dad that he needed more money, but his dad told him that the deal was $25,000. So, a hot dog stand was out. The next weekend, Jimmy visited a friend at Southern Illinois University. While there, he went to a mom-and-pop sandwich shop. “The restaurant used very little equipment, a refrigerator, a meat slicer, and a cash register. Nothing to it, I thought. New plan. I can make sandwiches!” says Jimmy.
He immediately went to work on his menu and by the end of summer, Jimmy had developed 6 sandwiches. He invited his family over to taste them and to vote on the best ones. The top four became his first menu. Jimmy set off to Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois to scout a location for his first shop. On January 13, 1983, Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches opened for business with four sandwiches and 25 cent Cokes with no ice in a two-car garage in an alley that was previously converted into a pizza shop. He had an ideal location: close to the bars, so he could feed all the hungry students after a late night out.
On his first day, no customers came, so Jimmy asked his cousin Steve to watch the store while he took sandwich samples to his business neighbors. It worked. Customers tasted the food and came back and bought a sandwich. With that first success, he printed business cards with his menu on the back to pass out with sandwich samples at the university dorms and nearby bars. Within a few weeks, he was breaking even.
In his first year, he made $154,000 in sales and a $40,000 profit, all of which he split with his father, who owned 48% of the company. Over the next two years, the business grew and by 1986, Jimmy bought out his dad by paying back the $25,000 plus interest. Jimmy was now the sole shareholder of Jimmy John’s.
Growth of Jimmy John’s
In 1994, Jimmy had 10 shops, made his first $1 million, and sold his first franchise. He continued to grow the sandwich chain, and by 2002, the company had 160 stores and 70 were failing. He stopped selling franchises for one year, and he and Jimmy John’s president, James North, knew what they had to do next.
With three young kids at home, Jimmy traveled the country with James to work with each franchisee and their teams side-by-side to retrain them on Jimmy John’s systems and procedures. In 18 months, they turned around 63 stores and closed 7. Jimmy had always been a hands-on operator, but the time on the road taught him a lot about what that truly meant. From that point on, he decided to be the best rather than the biggest. When they returned from their trip, they set higher expectations for franchisees and raised the standards under which future franchisees would be approved. The company became very transparent about how challenging running a franchise is with long hours, late nights, and all the sacrifices that would come with it.
“It was my naivete. I couldn’t believe that people didn’t want to get up at 5 in the morning and bake bread, and make sandwiches all day and into the night. I was shocked. I didn’t know that I was the weirdo.” – Jimmy John Liautaud, Franchise Times
Since that year, Jimmy John’s experienced exponential growth. In 2007, they celebrated the opening of their 500th location. In 2010, the 1,000th location opened and in 2014, the 2,000th location opened. Jimmy never made a business plan or expected the company to grow to the extent at which it has. The growth is a result of following an effective system, a lot of hard work, and a team of dedicated people. Jimmy John’s became one of the fastest growing restaurant chains in the country.
There was a lot of excitement around restaurant IPOs in 2014. Jimmy was preparing to take his company public, but he kept going back and forth with the decision. He was getting a lot of scrutiny and he was looking for more peace and privacy. Jimmy is very involved with his company, drilling down every little detail in all parts of the business. He didn’t want to answer to anyone, especially shareholders. In 2007, when sandwich sales were at $300 million, Jimmy brought on an investor, Weston Presidio, who helped the company grow sales to $2.5 billion; in 2014, they were looking to exit.
As the news spread that Jimmy was considering options, Jimmy and the people around him started to receive offers. He began exploring the options, visiting with many prestigious private equity firms. He had known Neil Aronson, Managing Director at Roark Capital, for years, and when a bid came in from Roark, Jimmy knew they were the perfect fit. Roark Capital has acquired 64 franchise/multi-unit brands like Arby’s, Corner Bakery, Cinnabon, and had a lot of experience in the food and beverage industry. Roark would be able to help identify both micro and macro strategies, while still allowing Jimmy to be Jimmy.
Jimmy spent two years getting to know the Roark team, and in 2016, Jimmy sold a majority stake of his company to Roark Capital, retaining 35% and staying on as the Chairman and the single largest individual shareholder. No management changes were made and James North continued to lead the day-to-day operations as the CEO and President. In 2019, Jimmy merged his remaining stake in Jimmy John’s into Inspire Brands. He remains a shareholder in Inspire Brands today, but has now shifted his focus to his Foundation’s philanthropic work and his family investment company.
Outside of Jimmy John’s, Jimmy spends time giving back to organizations in his community and at a national level. Jimmy and his wife Leslie and their three children set up the Liautaud Family Foundation in 2017 with the primary mission of helping people help themselves. The foundation gives to charities that promote and support the military, education, health and wellness, and the arts. Jimmy has given to hundreds of organizations including Mayo Clinic, Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, the American Heart Association, Camp Southern Ground, Frances Nelson SmileHealthy dental clinic, Crisis Nursery, and Champaign County Youth Assessment Center. The foundation has also given millions to multiple wildlife conservation projects in South Africa, and to wild sheep re-population projects in North America and Eastern Asia. One of the family’s favorite organizations is the Hortatio Alger Association, which provides scholarships to high school students that have overcome extreme adversity.
Under Jimmy’s leadership, Jimmy John’s has grown almost 2,800 locations in 43 states. With success like that, it comes as no surprise that Jimmy John’s has been the recipient of numerous awards. In 2015, Entrepreneur.com named Jimmy John’s in the top 10 Promising Franchises for Ambitious Entrepreneurs, and a year later and again in 2018, Jimmy John’s was listed #1 on Entrepreneur’s Franchise 500 list. Jimmy John’s has also been ranked #1 Franchise by Forbes in 2016 and received Nation’s Restaurant News Gold Chain Award.
As the founder of Jimmy John’s, Jimmy has been recognized for his professional and personal successes. As Jimmy John’s started to see tremendous growth in 2003, Jimmy was recognized by Crain’s Chicago Business as one of Chicago’s “40 Under 40.” In 2004, Jimmy was recognized as the Ernst & Young Food & Beverage Entrepreneur of the Year, given to outstanding entrepreneurs who are building and leading dynamic and growing businesses. That same year, he was inducted into the CEO Hall of Fame by the Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization and given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the National CEO Conference.
Eight years later, Jimmy was recognized by Nation’s Restaurant News with the Golden Chain Award for the leadership of a successful and growing food service organization. In 2015, Jimmy was inducted into the Chicago Area Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Franchise Times named Jimmy the Deal Maker of the Year in 2017 for his sale to Roark Capital and the cash out of over $2 billion to Weston Presidio. Franchise Times judges referred to the sale as “one of the best private equity deals of all time in the restaurant business.”
In 2018, Jimmy was honored with the Horatio Alger Award, an award that honors outstanding Americans who have succeeded despite adversity. That same year, he was also named to the Forbes Billionaires list.
In 2020, Jimmy had the honor to co-chair President Trump’s small business council with Mark Cuban during the early stages of the Coronavirus Pandemic.
Jimmy met his wife, Leslie, while she was working at the Blue Bunny ice cream shop at McCormick Place in Chicago. Leslie was a ballerina at the time, and has always been heavily involved in the arts being a playwright, actress, author, and choreographer. Family means everything to Jimmy. He and his wife have raised three children, Spencer, Lucy, and Fred. They enjoy traveling, boating, outdoor activities, and just hanging out together. Jimmy’s primary residence is in Nashville, Tennessee. The family splits their time between Nashville and their seasonal homes.
Jimmy has a passion for coaching young entrepreneurs. He especially likes sharing his experiences with up-and-coming restaurant operators.
Jimmy started a family investment company in 2016 upon his sale to Roark Capital. His company has a diverse portfolio with investments that include two startup airlines, wineries, cosmetics manufacturers, hotels, an outdoor clothing company, bars and restaurants, food franchising, coffee, and commercial, residential and agricultural real estate.