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Thriving in the Tough Times: The Power of Serving Your People

Thriving in the Tough Times: The Power of Serving Your People

This is Part 5 in a series called “Thriving in the Tough Times.” Read Part 1Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Continuing series on my approach to surviving and thriving in a downturn:

  • Double down on quality
  • Lead by example
  • Serve our people
  • Focus, focus, focus on the customer
  • And remember why we got into this business

When I started my business, I was 19 years old. I never was a boss before. I had two high school buddies I recruited to be managers. I thought being a boss was taking the easiest jobs for myself and the easiest shifts for myself.

The story goes like this, I opened the doors Jan 13, 1983. One manager worked Friday through Tuesday nights, and the other guy worked Wednesday through Sunday days. I worked Monday and Tuesday day and Wednesday and Thursday nights and partied Friday, Saturday and Sunday. By March, one guy quit so I took 7 day shifts and my other manager took 7 night shifts. It was April 3, 1983 and I get a call from my manager at 4:30 in the afternoon, he tells me he’s quitting. I was alone, I was in my shop, I said ok, customers came in and the next thing I knew it was 2:30am and I went home.  I came back the next day and opened the store and worked until close. I was totally freaked out emotionally, had no clue if I could do this or not, but I closed, and then repeated. The first week, I was really scared. The second week, I started to get it. The third week, I started to know every customer, by the 4th week I had it down and I was working 8:00am-2:30am 7 days a week and I tasted success for the first time in my life. From last in my class to running a business, I was digging it. I never knew I could work 8:00am-2:30am without turning into a pumpkin. I’m proof you can do it and I’m proof hard work pays off.

By the time students left in May, I had this sub shop totally dialed in and I was really good at running it. I also was so protective of what I built, so protective of my customers, that I didn’t want to ever disappoint my customers. As a result, I didn’t want anyone making the subs but me, I didn’t want anyone slicing the meats and veggies but me, I didn’t want anyone to bake the bread but me. So, I did it all myself. My employees started to come in and there was literally nothing to do, I had all the work done. All we had to do was take orders, execute, and fill them. Pretty soon, the employees wanted to work, wanted to slice, wanted to clean, wanted to bake, but I was so freaked out about having it not be perfect, I said no, I’ve got this.

After the summer of 1983, I had been working open to close for 5 months straight. I finally decided to hire someone and delegate some of this, so I could sleep more than 5 hours in a night. So, I did, I hired Tyler Funk (currently a fireman in Champaign, Illinois). I taught him how to open, I taught him how to do it the Jimmy way. I wrote down the steps to opening and provided it to Tyler in the form of a typed checklist that he would sign off on. I worked with him 5 days a week Monday to Friday and then he took weekends off and I pulled double shifts. After 4 weeks of this, I was ready for him to open on his own. I closed the shop on the Sunday night before Tyler was scheduled to be on his first open, and after I closed, I decided to prep all his meats, slice all his veggies, make his tuna and his Italian dressing bottles, so all he had to do when he came in was bake the bread and go to the bank.

I came in that morning at 10:00am, first time I had slept past 7:00am in 6 months, and he said to me, “Hey JJ, you did my work for me”. I smiled and helped him execute lunch and we cleaned up. I went home until 5:00pm and came back and I closed. We did this for the month of September, him working 5 days a week, me working 5 nights a week and doubles on the weekend. It wasn’t soon after that he started to do all my work for me before I arrived, and then I did all his prep for him after I closed. It became a competition, a game we played, and we really started to push each other.

Soon it was time for us to hire a 3rd manager, we did and trained him, then the competition started. We set him up for success and he set us up for success. Three guys having a blast outworking each other.

I figured it out. If I wanted to motivate my team, I had to take the hardest jobs for myself, and continually outwork my teammates. They copied what I did. I learned the power of leading by example. I learned that I set the pace in the store. I learned Jimmy clean, not industry standard. I learned that I could lead and take this shop wherever I wanted to, and it would work.

Two years later, I bought out my dad who was my partner and owned 48%, and soon it was time to leave Charleston and go to Macomb, Illinois to open my second store. I left that store in the hands of Dave Siatta, Tyler Funk and Billy Burns. The plan was for me to move to Macomb with Billy August 1, 1985 and we were going to open Macomb.  The day before I was going to open, Billy got killed in a car accident. I went to Macomb alone and did the same thing I did in Charleston. I would work open to close until I was able to bring Dave Siatta over to Macomb from Charleston, leaving Tyler Funk in charge of that store.

When I left Tyler in charge, I wanted to make sure he would feel the same about that store as I did so I paid him a monthly bonus of 25% of the profit. We had full transparency on the financials, he was outworking all of his mangers, he continued the competitive spirit in the store, and he got a huge piece of the action in return. This was working, not only was he rocking the store and growing sales, he was following systems and procedures with integrity, he was making subs exactly to spec and he was setting his team up for success. The exact same thing I did with Tyler, he was doing it. The high performance in the store was sustained by Tyler. The bonus kept him in the game. I created a symbiotic relationship between my manager, my employees and my customers, it was so powerful and so effective that it allowed me to go to Macomb and open a second store.

I spent a year in Macomb, replaced myself and put in another manager with the same bonus program. Then I moved to Champaign, Illinois and opened my 3rd store.

Long story short, I went from being a naive young kid to a 22-year-old with 3 sub shops making about $300k a year back in 1986. That was a ton of money then and still is today.

I learned that serving others allowed others to serve the customer. When the customer was served above and beyond, the sales grew. Trust was built, systems and procedures kept the stores consistent and bonus kept the leader in the game. It was America at its finest.  Free enterprise is a genius idea. It needs to be protected, put on a pedestal and cherished by all of us who are living here in America.

After ten years, I had built ten stores, each one with its own profit-sharing manager. In 1993, I made 1 million dollars in profit.

All of the managers would all come to Champaign, Illinois once a month and have an operations meeting. We reviewed the financials and presented the bonus checks. At that time, we also reviewed anything the managers wanted us to review in order to make the business better or stronger or to improve a process or procedure. All the coolest ideas I ever got came from these managers and from these meetings.

Now, I had managers totally aligned with the business, protecting the business, making perfect food, building sales, and every month their ideas were heard.  If I liked the idea it was implemented into the units. Just like that!

This business is all about people. You take care of the people, they take care of operations, when they take care of operations, the profit came. It was a most beautiful symphony that was playing out.

When your people are happy the customers are happy and the circle of life dances.

During tough times, if you have a team that is like family, that shares in the profits, that loves the store and the community they operate in, that’s when the magic happens. From this, I built the second largest privately held QSR company in the world and the second largest sandwich chain in the world.

It wasn’t a perfect product or plan, it was a team of hardworking people who serve their employees, their communities, their customers and the by product was a huge success.

Perfection is a journey not a destination. The more I served my team, the better the journey got. It was explosively effective.

Take care of others and they will take care of you. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Good luck, it is totally doable by anyone who’s willing to roll up their sleeves and do it.

Rock It!


Jimmy John Liautaud - Official Signature

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