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How I Made My Millions: Firemen Build a Franchise

Chris and Robin Sorensen of Firehouse Subs
Credit: firehousesubs.com
Chris and Robin Sorensen of Firehouse Subs

When we opened our first Firehouse Subs restaurant in 1994, we didn’t know all the questions, let alone have the answers.

What we did have was a passion for serving hearty and flavorful sandwiches, providing heartfelt service, and a commitment to honoring our family heritage in the public safety arena.

These three elements have stood the test of time as the rock-solid foundation of the Firehouse Subs brand.

Pursuing a Vision

When we launched Firehouse Subs, our ambition was limited to a single, successful restaurant. All of our time and resources were poured into the business, and we relied heavily on our immediate family members to provide the loyal manpower we needed to make the restaurant a success during the early years.

Completely committed to our mission, we were 100 percent confident in our ability to succeed and succeed we did.

As early as that first day in early October of ‘94, however, we began to discover the unasked questions. We dealt with unanticipated operational challenges born of our relative inexperience in the industry.

From the outset, customer traffic was higher than we anticipated, and we struggled through several weeks of not having enough equipment capacity to handle the flow of customers in a timely fashion. This would put us to the test in ways we never imagined before we opened the doors. We experienced challenges that might have caused a restaurant to fail before it ever had a chance to succeed.

Commitment to customer service

There was one thing carrying us through those early days: our unwavering commitment to serving our guests with the greatest level of genuine hospitality we could imagine. We knew the life of our business depended upon each and every hungry person stepping across the threshold into our little 1,200 square foot sandwich shop, walking out satisfied after enjoying a great meal at a great price, and knowing their business was genuinely appreciated.

Taking Firehouse Subs to the next level

Though we hadn’t aspired to open multiple locations, it wasn’t long before the ball got rolling in that direction. Building a brand required two key ingredients: money and great people.

Money can be relatively easy to come by. But great people are not a common commodity. Even when we made the best hires, we learned one of the greatest challenges of all: inspiring the people around us. Something very clear to us – to be successful at developing a brand, we had to provide the same level of heartfelt service to every one of our guests in every single location. Inspiring a single restaurant team is one thing. Inspiring people by the hundreds and then the thousands, is quite another. Now, here we are, nearly 17 years later, 430+ restaurants strong, and that is still the fundamental task we face, each and every day.

Keeping the business on track

For all those who aspire to follow in our footsteps, the key to doing this is the same. Success rests upon the people that you invite into your family ... your brand.

When it comes to the franchising end of the business, it is not a matter of selling franchises; you are inviting people to join you who you believe will share your passion and commitment. It is no different when you hire an employee at any level of your organization…from cashier to CEO. If the commitment to your core business philosophy isn’t there, then you have weakened your brand, rather than strengthened it.

This may sound terribly simple, but the fact of the matter is each day we either improve individually and as a team, or we decline. For your business to succeed, accepting decline cannot be an option. People are human, and never perfect. Surrounding yourself with people at all levels who strive for perfection and are given the resources to achieve it…that is the ultimate key to success.

Tune in:

'How I Made My Millions' Monday, July 25 9p | 12a ET

Brothers Robin and Chris Sorensen were born into a family of firefighters. Both joined the fire department, but Robin quit because he liked to cook. Chris, who stayed on the job, joined him in opening Firehouse Subs in 1994. There are now more than 350 Firehouse Subs locations across 16 states.