Firing Up (Sandwich) Success

Robin Sorensen had been hanging out in firehouses with his dad, Rob, since he was a kid. He followed him and his big brother, Chris, into firefighting but quickly realized that the lure of the kitchen was far stronger than that of the fire truck. He spent two years on the force and another in emergency medical services before trading his uniform for a chef’s apron and then persuading Chris to join him in opening a sandwich shop, Firehouse Subs, modeled after the vocation that shaped their upbringing.

As he celebrated his chain’s 20th anniversary, Sorensen spoke to SUCCESS from his sweeping 9,000-acre Bell Cross Ranch in Montana, recounting his early fascination with food, the partnership with his brother, and their ability to create a top-notch sandwich chain with no culinary experience, no business background and, initially, no money to their names. Their story is one of grit, self-sacrifice, risk, chance discoveries, strong branding and self-identity, and financial conservatism that allowed them to survive the recession and then swell into the 788 franchises and 30 corporate-owned restaurants they oversee today.

Q: What inspired your love of cooking?

A: Growing up, I definitely had a passion for food. The term “foodie” did not exist, but most of the things I remember from childhood are around meals. That’s why I loved spending the nights in the fire station with my dad. You were sitting around the house with 15 other people, and I’d spend the day wondering what we were having for dinner.

My mom is an excellent cook, too. I spent many a day standing on a chair and helping her cook. We watched a lot of cooking shows, which back then was Julia Child, the Galloping Gourmet or Jeff Smith—remember him? He was one of my favorites.

Q: What were those early startup days like? Tell us about launching your first restaurant in Jacksonville, Fla.

A: So we had the idea and went around asking people for money. It was a two-year period, and then we kind of gave up. We couldn’t get anyone to give us any money. Then in the last six months before we opened, everything fell into place. It was a series of things that just started happening one day. I started telling my mother-in-law about [the concept], and I never expected this, but she said, “I’ll loan you my credit card.”

We never ever talked about having a big chain. Embarrassingly enough, we never even talked about making money. All conversations were about how to present the brand, the way it would look, the food, the quality, the portions. We kind of did it backward. But we focused on the things we were really passionate about, and everything ended up working out.

Q: There are a lot of places to buy a sandwich. What makes Firehouse Subs stand out?

A: The biggest thing is the majority of sub shops out there are cold subs, and from day one we wanted to be hot. We kind of stumbled upon the steaming thing—we bought a steamer because we couldn’t afford a grill—and the steaming part turned out to be way bigger than we thought. [Firehouse steams the meat to warm it, a process that results in added moisture and enhanced flavor.] We didn’t realize what a separator that would be.

Nowadays anybody can go out there and have hearty and flavorful food. We’re not the only people who make a great sandwich. It’s really all about our culture and The Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, which has given public safety agencies $11 million since 2005. It’s a foundation that matches our brand and our family heritage. Quality food, big portions, steaming—all that stuff can be duplicated, but the Firehouse brand can’t. It’s the whole package.

Q: How did you make the leap and learn the culinary business while opening a restaurant?

A: I don’t think I ever made a leap. I think I was a restaurateur since the day I was born. I just had a temporary stop. We didn’t have any culinary experience. The whole thing was driven off what we thought tasted great and was unique and different. I’m not opposed to research now, but back then it was all intuition. I think we knew what we didn’t know, so we just focused on what we understood. I’m not a culinary guy, but if I were, we wouldn’t be anything like we are. Would we have been successful? I don’t know. Firehouse is not fancy; it’s not very diverse. It’s simple: great quality, big portions and great flavor. We didn’t overthink it. We didn’t go ask everybody, “What do you like and what do you think?” We just sat down and did it.

Q: What financial sacrifices did you and Chris make early on?

A: We set ourselves up for success as best as we could. My goal was to take a minimum salary to survive—maybe $300 to $400 a week. From ’94 until maybe ’98 or ’99, Chris was still working as a firefighter and didn’t make anything [from Firehouse Subs]. But it was what was necessary to survive.

Our salary is not important. We had made a commitment to financial discipline. We decided once we started being successful that we would make the commitment to grow this thing. Chris and I didn’t take any distribution out of our company—not a penny other than money to pay our taxes—until the day of our 10th anniversary.

And the benefit of that is when the economy went down, we had been debt-free since 2001, and we were sitting there with cash in the bank.

Q: Speaking of the recession, you maintained your prices and made a major advertising push right in the middle of an economic crash. Why?

A: Everyone else was cutting media spending. People were changing portions, making cheaper prices. Subway’s $5 footlongs were at their peak. We did not renew with our [advertising] agency, and our new agency told us, “You need to double down and buy the most radio you’ve ever bought, and you need to change your message. You need to talk about your quality, and you need to tell your story.”

Chris and I went on the radio and told our story. It was like a light switch. In fact, we reached a record-breaking $730,000 [average unit volume] by the end of 2012. And even with that success, to this day, we continue to ask our franchisees to investment-spend. We have to communicate our message.

Q: As a brand that’s well-known for your large portions, why did you develop the “Hearty and Flavorful” line of lower-calorie options? How do you think it will affect the business?

A: What we’ve seen is some people want less carbs and more protein. We wanted to give them more options. We have six new subs and four new salads with the same amount of meat that we have on all of our mediums; we just cut the bread down by a third.

We had hundreds of different names and ways we were going to present this, and ideas of what we were going to call it. Nothing really felt right. I was sitting at my house one night and looking at our mission statement, and the first thing that’s on it is “hearty and flavorful.” That’s who we’ve been for 20 years. That’s what we do. Everything we do in this new menu has to be hearty and flavorful. We can’t get away from that.

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Jennifer Reed

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