5 Locations and 27 Years Later, Rick Smith Is Still Growing with Penn Station
5 Locations and 27 Years Later, Rick Smith Is Still Growing with Penn Station

The St. Louis legacy franchisee has been loyal to the brand since eating there three days in a row back in 1992.

Franchisees with Penn Station East Coast Subs have a reputation for sticking with the brand for many years—decades, even.

Enter Rick Smith. In September, he’ll open his fifth location with the brand that gave him his start back in 1992.

For anyone keeping score, that’s 27 glorious years of grilled subs, hand-cut fries and freshly squeezed lemonade.

Smith grew up in Wapakoneta, Ohio, best known as the hometown of Neil Armstrong. He was accepted to the University of Cincinnati’s world-renowned architecture program, but the effects of a broken neck from a car accident during his senior year of high school made it difficult for him to study.

Smith returned to the industry he felt most at home in: restaurants. “When I left college, my dad thought I was crazy to go into the restaurant industry,” he recalled. “But I said, ‘Dad, as soon as a guy has $1 in his pocket, he’s going to eat out.’ And soon it would be cheaper to eat out than eat in. People are just too busy to make the time to cook for themselves.”

Smith served as a general manager for heavy-hitter brands such as Wendy’s, Arby’s, Burger King and Rally’s. Then, in 1992, a head hunter recognized Smith’s talent and introduced him to Penn Station.

“I saw how much money I was making for those restaurants’ owners and felt it was time I figured out how to get that money into my own pocket,” said Smith.

He checked out Penn Station for the first time by visiting a location on Kemper Road in Cincinnati and ordering a Philadelphia Cheesesteak. “I went back the next day and thought my Pizza sub was even better,” he said. “Then I went back a third day to try something else and thought that Chicken Teriyaki sub was even better still. At that point, I knew I had to get involved.”

According to Smith, the food is truly the secret sauce of the franchise. “The food is even better today,” he said. “That’s been key to Penn Station’s success—sticking with what’s good and not changing it too much.

At that point, Smith joined the Penn Station, Inc. corporate team. He worked as an area representative for 10 years. “The experience was great,” he said. “I learned a lot about the franchising and the business side of the brand. I helped new franchisees get their stores open, helped them with training and helped them become successful.”

In 2000, Smith moved to St. Louis to take the leap from corporate employee to franchisee. “The way the company was growing at the time, everything fell into place,” he said.

He opened his first store in St. Peters, Missouri the next year. Then in 2004, he purchased a store he’d helped a fellow franchisee open in O’Fallon. “The economy in 2007 was just booming, so I cut a deal to build two more stores that opened in 2008, doubling the size of my company,” he said. “And then… everyone knows what happened to the economy. As a single guy with no business partners, I had to pretty much start from scratch. It took me a long time to dig out of that hole.”

But dig out of that recession hole he did, thanks to Penn Station’s resilient staying power. “The brand and business concept has proven successful,” he said. “I survived while a lot of our competition hasn’t. Now the economy has turned around and we’re ready to grow again.”

Smith’s fifth store is scheduled to open in St. Louis on September 6, 2019. “We think it could be our best one yet,” he said. “It’s just a packed little marketplace. There are huge traffic counts, and it’s only 4.1 miles from my first store, but it’s in a completely different shopping area.”

The opening will also mark Penn Station store No. 24 in the city. “People here are like everywhere else—everybody eats out,” said Smith. Indeed, the hunch he’d had when he’d left college has been right all along.

Smith credits Penn Station’s corporate team with his continued loyalty to the brand. “Their focus on helping the franchisee is unbelievable. It’s unparalleled,” he said. “I know people who own other restaurants and they’re lucky to see a corporate person every six to 12 months. We see our representative every three to five weeks. I feel very supported. If we have issues, we can call, and they help in any way they can. Any franchisee at any time can pick up the phone, call the founder, call the president, or anyone at the corporate office.  They’ll drop whatever they’re doing to assist the largest and smallest franchisees alike.  They know they’re selling return on investment, and anything they can do to assist in that endeavor takes priority for the corporate team”

In the midst of his fifth opening, Smith measures his success as a business owner in smiles. “To me, it’s all about having happy employees and happy repeat customers,” he said. “We deliver a quality product fast in a clean environment. Beyond that, we just treat everybody with respect and make them feel good.”

The startup costs for a Penn Station franchise range from $293,102 to $593,027, with a franchise fee of $25,000. For more information on franchising with Penn Station, visit http://www.penn-station.com/franchise/.