1851: What led to the founding of Cousins Subs in 1972?
Christine Specht, President and CEO of Cousins Subs: When cousins Bill Specht and Jim Sheppard first started Cousins Subs, their focus was on the quality of the product. After moving to Milwaukee from the East Coast, Specht realized that he was missing the taste of classic East Coast sandwiches. Recognizing a gap in the Milwaukee market, he called his cousin, Sheppard, and asked him to join him in a business venture designed to bring a sub shop to Milwaukee that rivaled those back East. That’s what inspired the idea behind the concept, and by focusing on providing customers with fresh baked bread and high-quality and locally sourced ingredients, they were able to capture that idea early on. From there, they were able to grow, and they really found success in the Milwaukee market. People were truly enjoying the product, which allowed Cousins Subs to grow organically. To build on that success, in the ‘90s Bill and Jim opened the concept to franchising to give entrepreneurs the opportunity to join the growing brand.
1851: What is Cousins’ main goal as a franchise, and how is it helping its franchisees succeed?
Specht: Overall, our goal as a franchise is to increase AUVs. We truly believe that this brand is a good investment for franchisees, and we want to put our best foot forward. That includes the quality of our products, which has remained consistent throughout our more than 45-year history.
To help our franchisees experience success, we support them in any way that we can. That even includes financially — when we decided to add grills to every one of our locations, we created an incentive program to offset some of those costs. By putting that money behind them, we’re proving that we’re 100 percent behind this brand and believe in its potential and committed to helping our franchisees grow. That decision to upgrade our locations with grills was one of the first turning points in which our current leadership team said, “This brand makes better subs.” We’ve continued to make changes along those lines to show our franchisees — and customers — that we’re only doing what we believe is in the best interest of the Cousins Subs brand. In turn, our efforts help us increase our franchisees’ AUVs and financial performance collectively so that we then have a better product to market to future investors.
1851: What major milestones has Cousins Subs experienced over the past decade?
Specht: Since 2011, we’ve been taking active steps to rebrand Cousins Subs. Our grill incentive program helped to kick things off in 2012, where we incentivized $8,000 of the $30,000 investment for our franchisees by offering $4,000 cash and $4,000 in royalty reprieve for franchisees who purchased a grill for their restaurant. The intention behind that program was for scale, and it was highly efficient. Plus, it showed our customers that we listen to them — our guests were saying they wanted grills and were only going to locations that had them, highlighting the need to upgrade to grills system-wide. We also reinvested in new menu boards at the same time as the grills, with the first kitchen remodel taking place here at our corporate headquarters.
2011 also marked the launch of our 50 percent more steak campaign, highlighting that we offer more quality protein on our sandwiches than the competition. That’s when we made the milestone decision that we didn’t want to undersell our products. We make top-quality subs, and our goal with this campaign was to make customers aware. Through these remodeling initiatives, we’ve been able to bring the average age of our stores down to under 10 years. And within the last five years, 40 percent of our stores have gone through this rebranding, with the rest set to be remodeled within five years.
1851: What makes Cousins Subs stand out from the competition?
Specht: One of the biggest differentiators that sets Cousins Subs apart from the rest is our bread, which is the foundation of our product. We’ve created a bread recipe that combines the right texture, crunch and softness, and it’s been the hallmark of the brand for more than 45 years. That commitment to quality continues across all our ingredients — we’ve been Wisconsin-based since 1972, and we pride ourselves on using locally-sourced products.
Another point of differentiation that makes Cousins Subs stand out is our commitment to transparency and hospitality. You get more than just a delicious sub when you come to Cousins — you get to be a part of a pleasant environment that lives up to what it promises. Wisconsin is home to many iconic brands, and we’re proud to bring forward those same values, even as we continue to expand outside of the state.
1851: What qualities make up Cousins Subs’ ideal franchisee?
Specht: We’re incredibly selective when it comes to the franchisees that we now welcome into our system because we don’t want to see anybody fail. When we first started franchising, we signed deals with single-unit operators, but through our rebranding, we’ve realized that it’s better for our system to partner with franchisees who are committed to multi-unit growth. We’re looking for operators who have an ability to grow quickly and bring multi-unit restaurant experience to the table. It’s important for us to work with franchisees who truly understand what it means to be a part of the restaurant franchising space.
1851: What does the future look like for Cousins Subs?
Specht: Going forward, we’re preparing for continued growth in markets across the Midwest. We have one investment group that’s signed on to open 40 Cousins Subs locations in Chicago, and we’re eager to build on that momentum by teaming up with more multi-unit groups in other states. By finding those multi-unit development groups, we’ll be able to double the size of our company over the next five to 10 years. Now that our rebranding initiatives are in full swing and the rebuilding process is over, we’re focused on growing the company and bringing Cousins’ signature Wisconsin values to new Midwestern markets.