When Jim Valentine first reached out to Cousins Subs in hopes of becoming a franchisee, he didn’t know if the sandwich brand even offered a business ownership opportunity. And until receiving his letter, it didn’t. Valentine met with Bill Specht and Jim Sheppard — the brand’s namesake cousins — just as the pair was considering a pivot into franchising.
“I didn’t know if they had franchise locations or not, but I sent in a letter of interest, and soon I was sitting face-to-face with Bill and Jim,” Valentine said. “They were looking into franchising once they reached their 20th location, and they got my letter just as they opened number 20. The rest is history.”
Valentine became Cousins Subs’ first franchisee in 1985, but his introduction to the industry came even earlier. When he was 16, Valentine got a job at a McDonald’s in his hometown of Brookfield, Wisconsin located within Waukesha County. Valentine worked his way up through the ranks, eventually becoming a store supervisor for multiple locations. As a supervisor, Valentine says he’d hit a ceiling. That’s when he decided to become a franchisee.
“I had always had a lot of momentum working at McDonald’s — there was always upwards movement, until I became a supervisor,” he said. “At that point, I looked around at the other supervisors, and I could see that they were stuck, and I knew I wanted to keep moving forward.”
If his market wasn’t full, Valentine says he would have become a McDonald’s franchisee, but since he’d have to move to another city to open his own location, he decided to look elsewhere. Valentine looked at Taco Bell, another giant in franchising, but that too would have required him to move away from Waukesha. So, he decided to look for something local. That’s when he says Cousins emerged as the best option.
“I’d always loved Cousins as a customer, but I didn’t associate them with franchising — I didn’t even know if they were a franchise,” he said. “But the closer I looked at it, the more it appealed to me.”
Valentine says Cousins Subs had a sort of forward-thinking culture that suggested they’d be around for a long time.
“They were changing with the times,” he said. “The decor, the menu — everything was moving forward. Even the product was fresh and original in a way that burgers just weren’t.”
Today, Valentine is not only Cousins Subs’ first franchisee, he is also the franchise’s largest, with six locations throughout Waukesha County. But Valentine didn’t immediately set out for large-scale growth — he waited five years before opening his second location.
“I didn’t really have the desire to grow at first,” he said. “We were flooded with customers at my first location, and I loved it. We were working hard and doing well. But as time went on, I wanted to give the same growth opportunity to my employees that I had at McDonald’s, so I decided to open more locations to give them some room for growth.”
That room for growth paid off for a number of Valentine’s employees, who worked their way up through management and supervisor roles and eventually went on to become Cousins’ franchisees themselves.
Helping people grow within Cousins’ franchise system has become an ongoing pursuit for Valentine, who helped found the brand’s franchise advisory council (FAC) years ago and remains an active member.
As a member of FAC, Valentine represents the interests of franchisees to the franchisor, and when Cousins is considering a system-wide change, it will look to Valentine and the rest of the FAC to voice any concerns.
“Being on the FAC has been a real joy over the years,” he said. “It gives me an opportunity to work closely both with other franchisees and with the corporate leadership team to learn about the system and help make it better.”
Valentine says the FAC is illustrative of what makes Cousins Subs a great brand for franchisees, which is why he’s stayed with the brand for more than three decades.
“The FAC has taken a stand on certain issues that we felt might have negative consequences for franchisees, and every time, the corporate team has listened, stepped back and rethought the position,” Valentine said. “You won’t see that at many other franchises. Some won’t even give you the opportunity to speak up.”
These days, Valentine is primarily focused on remodeling his existing stores, but he hasn’t ruled out taking on additional stores.
“We’re always looking at opportunities for growth,” he said. “All of my stores are located within a very close range of each other, and we’re interested in expanding out a little bit, but we’re pretty selective, so we’ll have to see what might become available.”
Whether or not he takes on any additional stores in the near future, Valentine says he has no plans to step back from the brand anytime soon.
“It’s a great company to be aligned with,” he said. “They really care about their people, not just the numbers. I think that’s something that’s going to help them continue to grow in the future, and I’m proud to be a part of that.”