Since its founding in 1972, Cousins Subs has grown from a single restaurant run by real-life cousins Bill Specht and Jim Sheppard in Milwaukee to 100 restaurants throughout Wisconsin. Now, the sandwich franchise is kicking off a large-scale expansion plan in Illinois, starting with an ambitious development agreement with multi-unit, multi-brand franchisees Amit and Kalpesh Patel to develop 40 restaurants throughout the Chicagoland area over the next several years.
Cousins Subs’ new, more aggressive development strategy began when Bill Specht’s daughter, Christine Specht, took over as the franchise’s president and CEO after serving as its president and COO. Christine says the brand recognition and consumer goodwill that had carefully been established throughout the Midwest has provided the opportunity for extensive expansion.
“We know in our hearts that now is the time for major growth, and we are peeling back the layers of the onion and asking ourselves honestly, ‘what do we need to do to grow this brand?’” she said.
Part of the answer, according to Cousins Subs Vice President of Development Joe Ferguson, is identifying areas where the brand is best positioned for growth and carefully building out those markets. In that respect, the franchise’s development sees a wealth of opportunity in the Midwest.
“This is a brand that was built in the Midwest by Midwesterners,” Ferguson said. “Our customers may not be aware of that, but I think they can sense the authenticity. We’re about high-quality, hearty, food served at reasonable prices, and that’s something that’s always going to appeal to folks around here.”
Ferguson says he sees a particularly lucrative opportunity in Illinois, where until recently, the franchise had no presence.
“We are extremely excited about Illinois,” Ferguson said. “There are so many markets in the state that are perfectly primed for our opportunity. We’ve seen just how successful our restaurants are in neighboring markets, and we’ve seen consumer demand for Cousins Subs creep from those markets into Illinois. Now we’re going to fulfill that demand.”
The Illinois development push kicked off this year with the Patels’ 40-unit agreement in the Chicagoland area. The brothers are uniquely well suited to shepherd the brand’s entrance to Chicagoland. Though new to Cousins, they are franchise veterans, having owned and operated more than 50 franchise units throughout the Midwest and elsewhere, including Dunkin’ Donuts, Rosati’s, Wingstops and a number of gas stations. They've also been part of a family that has been franchising since the 1990s.
Amit Patel says he’s had his eye on Cousins for a while. When he learned the brand was looking for a large-scale development partner in Chicagoland, he jumped at the opportunity.
“My mom’s family lived in Wisconsin, and three of her brothers are Cousins franchisees,” Amit said. “I’ve always loved the food. We grew up eating it every time we went to visit the family.”
That family connection made Cousins ownership a particularly attractive prospect for Amit, who says he’s always run his franchise units as family operations.
“Even though we have so many different things going on, we always try to run our businesses like a family,” he said. “We try to get to know all of our managers personally and get involved with everyone who works for us.”
Amit says he saw that same attitude among the leadership at Cousins, and that encouraged him to sign on with the brand.
“When we met with the leadership team, they were extremely friendly, humble, respectful and easy to talk to,” he said. “That was one of the things that convinced us to move forward.”
The Patels will open their first Chicagoland Cousins Subs location this year, with plans to open an additional five to six locations each year over the next several years.
Even with that extensive development plan rolling out, Ferguson says there remains enormous growth potential for new Cousins franchisees throughout the Midwest.
“Amit’s restaurants in Chicagoland are just the beginning,” he said. “The Midwest is flush with markets where Cousins is primed for success, and we’re excited to work with new franchise partners in markets we’ve identified as opportunities.”