Today, Chris Bowen is part of a group that owns 11 Penn Station East Coast Subs locations across Central and Eastern Kentucky including Lexington and surrounding areas. However, his beginnings with the brand happened more than 15 years ago – and right down the street.
Bowen, who majored in Hospitality Management at Purdue University, went to work for the restaurant chain Cooker right out of college. While furthering his career he was also expanding his family and soon realized that the juggling act wasn’t creating the quality of life he wanted – so left the industry and started working for a preschool as a cook and facilities manager.
“I had young kids at the time and it worked out for me – unfortunately, I started going broke because I wasn’t making any money,” laughed Bowen.
On Halloween, while taking his kids trick-or-treating, he noticed that a neighbor five houses down on his street in Frankfort, Kentucky, was giving out Penn Station complimentary sub cards as a treat.
“I used to drive by his house and he’d always be outside playing ball with his son,” said Bowen. “I would always think to myself, ‘How does he have nights off and is able to be home this often when he’s working in the restaurant business?’ Out of curiosity, I checked out the Penn Station website and saw that they had GM positions available.” Bowen applied. “I didn’t realize that my neighbor was actually the owner and the individual who was hiring for the GM position. I actually offered to walk my resume down the street to him and we sat down at the kitchen table and he explained the concept and culture.”
One of the major selling points for Bowen was the profit share opportunity that every Penn Station general manager is provided in their signed contract. Bowen liked the idea of instead of getting bonuses on a random or sporadic basis, he could help the business’s success and share in the profit with the owner on a monthly basis– an element of the Penn Station model he continues to believe helps set them apart today.
Bowen started working for his neighbor, Penn Station franchisee Mark Greis, and he would do so for two and a half more years before joining the corporate team as an area rep covering Lexington. But his love of operations would end up calling him back, so he went back to work for the Lexington franchise group and worked his way up. When the Managing Owner retired, Bowen officially became a managing owner in the group.
As another twist in Bowen’s journey, the Lexington group who he went to work for eventually purchased the restaurant in Frankfort that was owned by Mark Greis, the individual who gave Bowen his start at Penn Station. However, Greis did not move on from Penn Station completely. He remains a General Manager, under a similarly written GM agreement that Bowen first signed, with another franchisee in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“The fact that Mark decided to sell his restaurant, yet wanted to stay involved with the brand, I think speaks volumes about Penn Station, the culture that is created with an ownership mentality, and the overall strength of the people and the products we sell,” said Bowen.
That culture and the strength of the brand continues to drive Bowen’s belief in the model he first became a part of 16 years ago.
“There are no guarantees in this business ever, but everyone I know in the Penn Station system who is doing well is doing it the Penn Station way. They buy into the process and the brand. There’s not a ‘I’m going to do it my way’ mentality,” said Bowen.
The locations that Bowen owns are actively involved in the community, including doing a lot of catering with the nearby University of Kentucky and being a sponsor of an annual charity alumni event with Kentucky Wildcats basketball coach John Calipari. Bowen recently became a member of the Penn Station Franchise Advisory Council and in that capacity brings the knowledge and experience he gained while on the corporate side of things.
“The area reps are consistently in the stores and I can reach out and ask them what they’re seeing and get a good vantage point of what they are seeing across the area. When I was an area rep it was the same thing. Everyone wants to do well on the performance evaluation, but they don’t want to just get scores. They want to know how consistent they are with their operations and how to improve. It’s a good working relationship,” said Bowen.
One of the strongest areas for improvement comes from the investment that Penn Station’s operations team led by VP of Operations Lance Vaught (who trained under Bowen and considers him an early mentor) puts in sharing best practices and acting as a bridge between different franchisees in the system.
“Oftentimes, I’ll get a call from a franchisee who says that Lance told them to call me and ask about specific things like how we got involved with the University of Kentucky or other marketing or operations area. I don’t know of any franchisee in the system who is isolated, there are a lot of avenues for people to help you out if you’re struggling,” said Bowen.
While Bowen’s journey still continues, it’s fitting that the career path he opted for 16 years ago in order to enhance the time with his family is now bringing them even closer together. Bowen and his wife of 20 years, Lisa, have two college-aged children – oldest Josh and oldest daughter Sydney – who work in his Richmond, Kentucky, location and their daughter, Faith, works in the Frankfort location while she’s still in high school. As a young boy, Josh would accompany his father at work on the weekends, standing on a milk crate in order to see over the counter and help take orders. Customers loved seeing the family dynamic in the restaurant and Bowen remembers those days fondly, and what the Penn Station experience has meant, and continues to mean, to the Bowen family.
“My wife is the only one that has stayed out of the Penn Station business,” laughed Bowen. “It’s really been a great thing for our family.
As a proud former general manager who noted the great autonomy and ability to build a strong system and culture provided to GM’s by the Penn Station model, Bowen respectfully stays hands-off when it comes to his children jobs, leaving their management, hours and pay up to their GM. It’s the GM’s and employees, Bowen said, who he believes create loyal guests.
All this time after starting his Penn Station journey, the ability to create a better work-life balance and find happiness both professionally and personally continues to fuel Bowen and his Penn Station plans for the future.
“I’ve been with Penn Station for 16 years and don’t have any plans to go anywhere any time soon. We want to open up more stores and grow our market. We want to expand,” said Bowen. “You can grind it out in the restaurant business, but if you make your work every day a pleasure to be at then you get joy on both sides of the fence.”