When I was going to school at the University of Illinois back in the 80’s, a sandwich shop opened up on Green Street that we all started going to. They had a cool neon sign in the window that said “Free Smells” and sometimes we would walk in and just take a big dramatic whiff even if we weren’t getting a sandwich. As it turns out, I was lucky enough to be living a couple blocks from the historic (to restaurant geeks like me) third Jimmy John’s store. Now there are close to 3,000 stores and they are growing like wildfire. Jimmy John’s kicked ass then but you’d have to say they are kicking more asses today than ever!
Back then we had heard stories about the crazy dude down in Charleston, IL (45 minutes down the road) that owned the place. I knew Jimmy John was a real guy back then and even though I didn’t know him, I liked him. He was my age or so and had a sandwich shop of his own. How cool is that?! At that point in my life I was just a major pothead on my path to being a Chemical Engineer!
Last week I took Jimmy up on his invitation to come to Champaign to hang out with him and visit the JJ Headquarters. What an awesome day; blogworthy for sure.
The JJ office is humble on the outside and tricked out on the inside, black and white and red mostly, like Jimmy John’s stores, with all kinds of fun JJ memorabilia and decorations. A great space to work in and reflects the JJ renegade spirit we JJ lovers all know.
Jimmy and I shot the shit for a little while and pretty soon we were talking about what kind of people we like working with. He called out to his assistant, “Hey Tracey, could you get Tina and Brian from Customer Service to come in here for a minute?”
In no time, two sharp people walked in the door to his office area, notebooks in hand. I love restaurant people, and I consider Brian and Tina to be restaurant people even though today they support franchisees and team members by talking to customers that contact JJ’s with questions or concerns. I knew how special this company and this person is to his people when Tina looked me in the eye and, crying, told me how special Jimmy is to her. Not Jimmy John’s, Jimmy.
At one point Jimmy said “let’s go in here” and opened a non-descript door. Inside a room of 50 or 60 people erupted with screams of delight. “Jimmy!” It was a room full of JJ managers and franchisees in town for training. Evangelists are what they are. It was awesome to watch Jimmy in his element answering questions and taking selfies with people who look up to this guy so much. He told his story about starting with a small loan from his dad and opening one sandwich shop, about running around to stores with his now President helping his first franchisees make great sandwiches fast. He encouraged the people in the room; he told them he wants to help them win. And he does. Before we left that room he’d put his arm around every single person in the room and taken a picture.
I could see the JJ passion throughout the people as we toured through the office.
Jimmy is a great people person, but he’s an incredibly smart business person too, of course. He and his store design people shared some of the incredible innovative work they are doing to crank the cost of those cool JJ stores down so that their franchisees can keep kicking ass opening great, profitable stores and the customer can have the great experience they want for the prices they expect to pay. This is the kind of work Toppers works very hard at and it was a treat to see an accomplished team like JJ’s doing the deed for their franchisees.
You know what I really love about Jimmy? He is totally real. He is just a genuine, caring, passionate, hard-working guy that’s made it big by being focused and relentless and having the right people on the journey with him. And he’s taken thousands and thousands of people with him. Because of that, I consider Jimmy John Liautaud to be Restaurant, Franchising, and Sandwich Royalty.
I always take it as the compliment it’s meant to be when people compare us to Jimmy John’s in the marketplace for one reason or another. I couldn’t help comparing Toppers growth trajectory to JJ’s when I was hanging out with the man himself last week. The future is calling. You can bet I’ll be taking Jimmy’s last piece of advice: “Keep on the gas.”