When the enthusiastic Jimmy John Liautaud was handing out free sandwiches to college students on the streets of Mattoon, Ill., in the ’80s, nobody would have guessed that the 19-year-old’s irreverent style and simple subs would one day be the hallmarks of the nation’s No. 1 franchise.
Three decades later, Jimmy John’s is, for the first time, exactly that. The first store didn’t even have a budget for an ice machine. But Liautaud’s persistence, do-or-die attitude and innovative model of delivering fresh sandwiches straight to customers’ doors helped his brand expand slowly but steadily over the decades, first to other college towns and more recently to just about everywhere. Now, he has more than 2,400 “freaky fast” sandwich shops and another 1,250 in the pipeline -- and all of them put ice in the sodas. It was enough to propel the chain from No. 6 last year to No. 1 on the 2016 Franchise 500®.
“What made us the top franchise? I like to say we’re a 33-year overnight success,” Liautaud laughs. “I started out as a sandwich maker, then became a better sandwich maker. Then I became a faster, better sandwich maker. Then a delivery guy who figured out how to get sandwiches to people quite rapidly without speeding. In 33 years, we continued to learn our craft and evolve with the customer.”
That is what really put JJ’s on top: commitment to customers. But perhaps not the ones you’re thinking of. “Our franchisees are our customers,” says Liautaud, who claims that creating a model and a system that makes money for franchisees has been the key to his success. “Last year we didn’t have any stores close at all. Hopefully, that will be the same this year. In the last decade, we’ve had only 30 stores close. We spend a lot of time working with franchisees and teaching them how to do what we do. We teach them to take care of the small stuff. If you do that, the big stuff takes care of itself.”
Liautaud doesn’t see any major changes on the horizon -- the menu rarely, if ever, varies, and there are few discounts, specials or limited-time offers. Over the next few years, JJ’s aims to fill in markets in which it has only a few units. But most important, Liautaud wants to keep on top of what made the brand so popular in the first place: quality food and superfast service and delivery.
The biggest differentiator -- delivery -- is especially important now, as dozens of other brands are testing and launching similar programs, mostly through third-party services. But Liautaud thinks his company’s reputation and multidecade head start will keep him on top.
“There’s a lot of great competition out there today, and we have to work extra hard. Twenty years ago, our sandwich was a specialty sandwich. Now it’s almost a commodity. Everyone’s food is great. Panera is phenomenal,” he says. “But I think time is the new currency. When you can provide a service that fits into people’s lives, you’re certainly ahead of the game. If a product is excellent and holds up from the time it’s made to the time it’s delivered, you have a winner. But if it doesn’t hold up, that can kill a brand. There’s nothing worse than 30-minute-old french fries.”