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Thriving in the Tough Times: Why We Got Into This Business

This is Part 7 in a series called “Thriving in the Tough Times.” Read Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

Thriving in the Tough Times: Why We Got Into This Business
Jimmy John’s Founder’s First Sandwich Shop

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

This is one tuff business!

When I started JJ’s, I opened 10 stores in 10 years and moved to 10 different cities.  I loved what I did, I built a killer team, had a winning profit-sharing program, and all ten stores were very well-run units. It was magic.

I loved getting up at 5:00am and going in and baking bread, receiving the fresh veggies every day, opening the cases and smelling the earth in the box of lettuce, washing it, slicing it, then cutting the meats and making tuna salad. I loved getting ready for the day, it made me happy. It literally was my happy place (Remember, my childhood was shit! I was a fat kid; my dad went bankrupt twice and I did awful in school). This truly was my first feeling of success, ever in my life that I could recall.

After ten years of being on the road and building JJ’s to ten stores, I had people calling me wanting to franchise the business. So, in 1994, I decided to start selling franchises. I hired a legal team and I hired a franchise consulting company to help me put together my franchise package. In franchising, you essentially license someone else to operate using your name, systems and procedures, foods and intellectual property in exchange for a set fee or royalty.

I was so excited about this prospect of getting paid without having to move to another city or having to take the phone calls at 2:00am anymore. I couldn’t start this fast enough. I had paid my dues for ten years. I was ready for the simple life.

I hired a team of execs from another fast food chain that I respected to run my franchised units (I was taught that the entrepreneur has to step aside and hire professionals), so I heeded the advice. They were to run the franchise side and I would run the company stores. I was good at it.

My assumption was that everyone who bought a JJ’s franchise would be as excited as I was to get into the stores at 5:00am and open up, prep, bake, slice and ready the store for the even more fun lunch crowd.

As franchises started to open, I found that the majority of the owners were not wanting to be in the stores, I found them avoiding the stores. It was like paying to join a gym and then not using the gym or buying a treadmill and not using it, and then wondering why the gym or the treadmill wasn’t working for you.

I thought these people clearly knew that this job was 24/7/365. I assumed they knew that being in the restaurant business was a lifestyle not a part time effort. I was so naïve, I just assumed these people paid me all this upfront money that they would be as excited as I was to be in this hard work lifestyle business.

What I found was totally the opposite. First off, my leadership team wasn’t following the program, so the franchisees were not following the program. Secondly, my franchisees were not as excited as I was to get up at 5:00am every day and run to the store to work really freakin’ hard.

The results were disastrous, in 2003, I had 200 stores and 70 were failing. As I dug in, I found few stores had systems in place and the failing units almost had none.

We have a culture at JJ’s, we arrive at 5:00am, we slice, we prep, we bake, and then we clean the entire restaurant up, dishes dried and put away, meat slicer cleaned, all the prep is hand sliced and done by 10:00am. This helps us to be ready for the lunch rush/execution.

This procedural rule was very powerful for the operators. But it did not allow the story of what we really do to be seen by the potential franchisee or the customer. They never saw us prep because we started so damn early.

People came to JJ’s for lunch at noon and we made them a sandwich that tasted pretty damn good and we did it effortlessly in 30 seconds, and boom, they were in and out. Subs So Fast You Freak.

The speed the quality, the team, the vibe from the music, people perceived this to be easy. So, they applied for a franchise and I sold em one.

They had no idea it took 6 hours of prep to open to make a 30 second sandwich. They just saw what they saw and wanted to do it. Looked so easy.

So, the failure rate that I had during the mid to late 90’s was quite large.

When an issue arises, you go fix it now. My first-generation franchisees were not ready for the onslaught of what this lifestyle really was. All they recall is a 30 second damn good sandwich and they wanted to open one in their town too.

I found it interesting that many people wanted to get into the restaurant business to get out of the business. Why get into it and then try to run away from it? This was so confusing.

As I type this blog, I’m sitting here staring at my treadmill that has dust on it from not being used.

This business is the hard work business. It is one that when a problem arises you have to fix it now or the customer suffers the brunt of it. You can’t run out of bread. You can’t run out of anything and if you do, you have to go in and help make it happen.

If you do the work, you set your team up for success, and you are there for them, if you compensate the team with performance-based incentives to earn a piece of the profit and are just slightly better than the competition, you can kick ass. If you embrace it, it will treat you as good as you treat it.

We got into it to serve and to say yes and to please customers. We didn’t get into it to not do those things. Just like the gym membership, the more you use it the more it works.

Long story short. I changed my pitch in a big way. I told my potential franchisees that it’s 24/7/365. Everything is your fault. People don’t show up it’s your problem. I told them the truth. When I did this, it changed the business completely. I scared away the ones not into it and got excited with the folks that were.

When in doubt rock it out. If you want to succeed be prepared to earn it. If you choose to win you can win.

Remember, hard work is hard work. We got into this to work hard, we are not printing software, we are making fresh food from scratch every day and one deliverable at a time and each time we are judged by our customer.

It is what it is, I hope this provides some perspective.


Jimmy John Liautaud - Official Signature

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