By Alex Gerzon
I’m proud to have been a part of opening Canada’s first Firehouse Subs franchise in Oshawa, Ont., not only because of the food we serve, but also because of the way we serve the community beyond the four walls of the restaurant. It’s not your run-of-the-mill sandwich shop. We serve a purpose beyond food, supporting the communities we serve.
Firehouse Subs was founded in the U.S. in 1994 by second-generation firefighters, brothers Chris and Robin Sorensen. They had always tried to earn a little extra money outside of their firefighting duties and, after a few less-than-successful business attempts (including real estate, rock ‘n’ roll, wedding videographers, a Christmas tree farm and more), they landed in the restaurant industry.
After some research, the Sorensens opened the first Firehouse Subs restaurant in Jacksonville, Fla., where they had served as firefighters. The walls of the sub shop were decorated with helmets and axes, while fireman’s poles stood between the dining tables. The brothers had brought the firehouse to the front of the house. Although they faced some bumps along the way, including, ironically, a lot of burnt bread, they soon had the process smoothed out and the brand began to grow. My franchise, which opened in 2015, is one of more than 1,025 Firehouse Subs locations now operating throughout North America.
Turning on the burner
I’ve always worked to be the best at whatever task was at hand. This started when I was playing hockey and training in tae kwon do. I practiced martial arts from the time I was a kid until I was in my mid-20s and won a bronze medal in the featherweight division at an Ontario tae kwon do championship.
When I wasn’t running off to hockey or tae kwon do, some of my favourite childhood memories are of helping my grandmother in the kitchen. She would stand beside me, watching me diligently and determinedly stirring the pot of whatever we were cooking that day. She would chop up the meats and vegetables and let me slide them into the pan. I would peer through the darkened window in the oven door, watching as the deliberately selected ingredients melded slowly into a Sunday night dinner. When we finally sat down for dinner, I would look at my plate triumphantly and gaze around the table at mouths turned up in smiles from the food I had helped to prepare. This passion for cooking and being in the kitchen has followed me from my childhood through my career.
Every job I had while growing up in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) was in the restaurant business. I started flipping burgers at A&W when I was 13 years old and I never looked back. In my early 20s, I worked as a bartender and supervisor at The Keg, then as a manager at Alice Fazooli’s. My first real insight into franchising was as Boston Pizza’s corporate trainer. I travelled across North America, helping franchisees train their teams in preparation for their grand openings. Being a part of these early stages of launching a franchise provided insight that has stayed with me even now. I learned how important it is to make sure the team is well-trained and to maintain consistent service across all franchise locations. My role for Boston Pizza grew when I became their franchise manager and was then promoted to director of franchising.
In 2009, I left Boston Pizza to take up the director of franchising post at Cara, a Canadian franchisor of multiple restaurant brands. In this role, I led franchising efforts for Swiss Chalet, Montana’s and Kelsey’s. One year later, Harvey’s was added to my list of responsibilities and then Milestones as well. When Cara merged with Prime Restaurants in 2013, I again took on additional responsibility, with East Side Mario’s, Casey’s and Fionn MacCool’s coming under my jurisdiction. After taking on these responsibilities, I was promoted to vice-president (VP) of franchising.
All of these roles came together over time, much like the ingredients in my grandmother’s oven, to give me the expertise I needed when deciding to open my own franchise.
Finding the Firehouse
My business partners, Richard Jodoin and George Heos (who was my boss when I was the franchise manager at Boston Pizza), and I discovered Firehouse Subs on a trip to the U.S. At that time, we were investigating opportunities in the fast-casual restaurant industry. I fell in love with the brand and was sold on the company after one bite of their Italian sub. It was the best sandwich I had ever tried. We all agreed this kind of product was not available in Canada and we wanted to be the ones to introduce it to the market.
Although it was the Italian sub that really sold me, the whole menu was full of great options. The brand was supported by great product quality: all of the meats and cheeses are sliced daily, then steamed. Steaming them is a new concept in the sandwich market, but adds so much flavour to each sandwich, Italian or otherwise. Firehouse offers hot submarine sandwiches and an ‘Under 500 Calorie’ menu. Popular items include the Hook and Ladder, which includes smoked turkey breast, Virginia honey ham and Monterey Jack cheese, and the Smokehouse Beef and Cheddar Brisket, which features beef smoked for 16 hours in an authentic Texas smokehouse and melted cheddar cheese.
I also really enjoyed the service platform. From the initial “welcome to the Firehouse” greeting through serving the food to the table, checking on the guests to ensure they enjoyed their sub and dining experience, clearing the tray and ending with a friendly goodbye, it was like being in a full-service restaurant, without the full-service price tag. It really wowed me.
The final thing that hit it home for my wife and me was the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation. Giving back to first responders in the communities the franchises serve, in the form of life-saving equipment, was something that really resonated with me. To me, there is no better feeling than helping people and giving back. This was the perfect opportunity to leverage my expertise and follow my passion at the same time.