Before they were married, Roger and Marilyn Kirkland were high-school sweethearts. Now they are watching their grandkids graduate from college. The couple knows what a strong partnership looks like, so when they say that Penn Station is a partner for life, they mean it.
“After 14 years, we feel almost married to the brand,” says Roger. “These people are not just part of our business life, but an important part of our personal life as well.”
Those 14 years began after years of work in the restaurant industry, including franchise ownership. Roger and Marilyn’s first venture into the food-service industry, and into entrepreneurship, began when they purchased a small independent restaurant in Bainbridge, Ohio.
“We ran that restaurant for two years,” says Roger, “and we were doing well, but we were killing ourselves, working seven days a week, and I didn’t see any way that we could expand.”
Expansion was a persistent motivator in those early years. The Kirklands had two young children, and they knew that they wanted to grow their business along with their family. So Roger looked to the franchise world, an industry designed around expansion.
Roger and Marilyn sold their independent restaurant, and Roger went to work as a store manager for a national fast-food franchise, hoping that his drive and experience in the industry would quickly propel him up the ladder.
Roger’s instincts proved correct. He was promoted to Area Supervisor and soon saved up the capital to invest in his own location, which he owned until deciding to invest in Penn Station.
It was a long drive that led the Roger and Marilyn to that decision. On paper, the Kirklands were right where they wanted to be, but Roger wasn’t having fun anymore. What’s more, Marilyn couldn’t help but notice one seemingly irrational habit of Roger’s. Every few days, the busy store owner was driving 80 miles, each way, to Ashland, Kentucky to eat lunch.
That’s where the closest Penn Station restaurant was located. Marilyn’s brother had introduced Roger to the brand, and he was hooked.
“Marilyn was concerned I was putting too many miles on our truck,” Roger explains, “but I loved the food. I worked hard, and I wanted to enjoy my lunch.”
Understandably, Marilyn didn’t quite get it. So one day she cleared her mid-afternoon schedule and set out with Roger for a destination lunch. The couple ordered sandwiches and fries to share, and Marilyn quickly forgot about their truck’s mileage.
They finished up their meals and buckled into the truck to head back to work. Before they reached the highway, Marilyn told Roger they’d need to sell their store.
“She wanted to buy a Penn Station. She knew immediately. And I wasn’t going to argue with her,” said Roger.
Still, the Kirklands are business people. They knew they’d need to do a little research before jumping in, so they compared Penn Station with a few other brands in the same segment.
“We liked a number of concepts we looked at,” says Roger, “but what we kept coming back to was that there was no other product that we’d be able to stand behind like we knew we could with Penn Station.”
So in 2004, the Kirklands opened their first Penn Station location. 10 months later, they opened their second. 18 months after that, they opened their third. Then their fourth. Then fifth. Today, the Kirkland’s own ten Penn Station restaurants in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
That growth has been supported directly by the brand’s corporate team, who the Kirkland’s credit with relieving every roadblock and bottleneck the couple has run up against in their expansion strategy.
“I like to get business done early,” says Roger, “and it just so happens that Craig [Dunaway, President of Penn Station] is in the office every morning at 6 a.m. So I would talk to him frequently, sometimes once or twice a week when we are working through plans for a new opening.
The Kirklands believe that level of attention to the franchisees pervades every facet of the Penn Station brand.
“Craig and Jeff [Osterfeld, Founder and CEO of Penn Station] are visionaries. It’s an amazing partnership,” Roger explains. “They didn’t just create a great product, they created this amazing system for franchisees.”
According to Roger, the best thing a new franchisee can do is keep their eyes and ears open and follow that system.
“You can learn so much in your first six months or year. Follow the system, see how it works, and see how Jeff and Craig work, and you will become a better business person. Marilyn and I have a lot of stores to manage, and we will always do it the Penn Station way because that’s the way that always works.”
But for the corporate team, the management system is not a set-and-forget program. Roger and Marilyn see Osterfeld and Dunaway visiting stores frequently, learning what they can do to improve life and business for their franchisees.
“Craig and Jeff aren’t exactly sitting in an ivory tower,” says Roger. “They are up early every morning figuring out what they can do to make their franchisees more successful. And if I really need these guys, I can call, text, or email one of them, and I’m going to get a response. That’s what I love. These guys never forget that they are in a customer service business.”
With that support, Roger and Marilyn have no plans to stop growing. Desarae Barnes, their Managing Owner at the Pennsylvania locations, is an example of Penn Station’s oversight structure that works in the Kirkland’s favor. Partners like Barnes help the Kirklands grow and have someone motivated running their stores, eliminating the need for the Kirklands to be onsite and giving them the ability to keep adding locations.
Crucially, the Kirklands love the taste of Penn Station grilled subs. Roger has recently changed his order from the chicken teriyaki to the Italian sub, and Marilyn, who is tending toward vegetarianism these days, orders the grilled artichoke sub with peppers and onions. Both still eat at Penn Station frequently. Fortunately, the drive is much shorter than it used to be.