Three young men left the New Jersey party where they met one night in 1964 to sample a hoagie sandwich they'd heard about at the Jersey seashore. Before the evening was over, Anthony Conza, Peter DeCarlo and Angelo Baldassare, all 24 years old, had the ingredients for their own sandwich shop: Blimpie.
"We were fascinated with the way they made the sandwiches right there in front of the customer," recalls Conza.
Fascinated enough to pursue it as a business venture. A friend lent the young men $2,000 to open the first Blimpie in Hoboken, New Jersey. They sold their first franchise the same year for just $600.
Thirty-two years later, Blimpie is 1,450 units strong, and last year it rang up sales of $26.9 million. Although Conza, now 56, is the only remaining founder, his two former partners still have ties: Baldassare started his own food distribution company and supplies some Blimpie stores, and DeCarlo retains rights to Mid-Atlantic-area Blimpie stores.
But partnerships still play a big role in Blimpie for Conza. The sandwich franchisor inked a deal last year with Swedish convenience store chain Pressbyran, locating 22 Blimpie counters within Pressbyran stores in Sweden so far and hoping to have 100 locations there in the next few years. Blimpie is also establishing its own free-standing stores throughout Sweden, with the first one debuting in October 1995.
The Swedish expansion has whetted Conza's appetite for international markets. A second Blimpie location recently opened in Madrid, Spain, a store is expected to be operating in the U.K. by year-end, and several other countries are in the planning stages.
"We've not had to make a lot of changes [in foreign stores]," says Conza. "That's the beauty of Blimpie: You take a loaf of bread and cut it in half and put whatever you want inside."
Conza wasn't always so enthusiastic about Blimpie. "In 1983, we decided Blimpie wasn't enough for us," he recalls. Hungry for more, Conza opened Border Cafe, a Mexican restaurant. In hindsight, he admits he was probably biting off more than he could chew.
The Mexican food foray distracted Conza from Blimpie, taught him a lot about tequila, and, eventually, led him to do some serious soul-searching. "I had lost the passion for this business," he admits.
Conza considered starting a new business concept but knew he risked running into the same problems. "I decided we should get back to doing what we really know how to do," he says.
Not an easy task when you have a competitor like Subway dominating the industry. But Conza doesn't see it that way. "Subway has done us a favor by introducing Americans to the submarine sandwich," he says. "We feel we have a better product, so all we have to do is to get people to try our products over theirs."
To that end, Blimpie has expanded creatively: Since 1992, the sandwich company has been selling subs in nontraditional outlets such as colleges, hospitals, schools and convenience stores. Blimpie has even signed contracts with Delta and Hawaiian airlines to provide in-flight meals. Other co-branding agreements have Blimpie sandwiches being served at Texaco stations in the New Orleans area and Mobil stations nationwide.
"Our big goal is to have 5,000 outlets in the year 2000," says Conza.
One thing is certain: Blimpie is taking a bite out of the competition.