In 2016, while visiting family in Florida, Olimpia stopped in at a Firehouse Subs franchise. She loved the food, but was even more impressed by the company itself.
Firehouse Subs was founded in 1994 by brothers and former firefighters Chris and Robin Sorensen. They opened their first location in Jacksonville, Fla., where they had served as firefighters, and decorated the restaurant with a fire hall theme. The menu was packed with hot gourmet submarine sandwiches, made with premium meats and cheeses that were sliced daily and then steamed. 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 a Texas smokehouse, and melted cheddar cheese. Unique to the restaurant is Captain Sorensen’s Datil Pepper Hot Sauce, which is named in honour of the founding brothers’ father, Rob Sorensen, a 43-year retired fire captain.
Beyond the décor and menu, the franchise system is committed to giving back to local communities and supporting first responders. In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Sorensen brothers established the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation after travelling to Mississippi to provide food to emergency workers and survivors. The foundation was created with the mission of providing funding, equipment, and educational services to first responders and public safety organizations within the community.
Firehouse Subs franchises raise money for the foundation via three in-store fundraising efforts: (a) the sale of recycled pickle buckets; (b) collection canisters at the cash registers; and (c) a ‘round-up’ program, where patrons are asked if they would like to round up their total to the nearest dollar. Since its conception 13 years ago, the foundation has granted more than $35 million to local organizations and emergency services.
When Olimpia first tried Firehouse Subs, the brand had recently expanded into the Canadian market, with the first location in the country opening the previous year in Oshawa, Ont. With this expansion, the franchise system established the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation of Canada, which would allow Canadian franchisees to support local organizations and groups in the same way as their U.S. counterparts.
Olimpia and I felt a strong connection to the brand and were immediately interested in buying a franchise. As first responders, the notion of a restaurant that supported and funded emergency services resonated with us. However, while we both knew the concept would thrive here, we still felt nervous joining a company without any name recognition in Canada. Nonetheless, we kept the idea in the back of our minds.
Bring in the subs
By 2017, Firehouse Subs was expanding within Ontario, with more and more new franchisees signing on. Former National Hockey League (NHL) player Cory Stillman and his business partner, Jason Taylor, had signed a multi-unit deal and opened three locations in Ajax, Whitby, and Peterborough. The company had also announced plans for expansion throughout the GTA.
By this time, Olimpia and I had owned our Booster Juice franchises for more than two years and it had been a very positive experience. Operating a franchise gives you experience in all aspects of running a business, from human resources, to advertising, to bookkeeping. Although it was still new to us, we believed in the Firehouse Subs brand and were confident we could own and manage a successful restaurant in Ontario.
We arranged a meeting with Alex Gerzon, the area representative for Firehouse Subs of Canada. A franchisee himself, Alex opened the company’s first Canadian location in 2015 in Oshawa, Ont. Since then, he worked to build the brand in the province, onboarding new franchisees and training them in his restaurant.
When franchising with a company, it is important to be sure the system has the franchisee’s needs in mind as well as those of the business. It helps for franchisees to have a line of communication with the company’s head office to feel like they are being heard. As Firehouse Subs is headquartered in Jacksonville, Alex’s restaurant in Oshawa serves as the unofficial head office for franchisees in Canada. The company implements this method for expansion throughout the U.S. as well, positioning franchisees as area representatives throughout the country to serve the brand.
After meeting Alex, Olimpia and I knew we were a natural fit with Firehouse Subs. As a franchisee, Alex understands first-hand what it is like to run the business, is willing to go to bat for other franchisees, and serves as a direct contact with the Jacksonville head office.
In early 2018, we signed a multi-unit franchise deal and put the wheels in motion to open our first location in Stoney Creek—but there was a lot to do before we could get to work.
To ensure consistency in all of its locations, Firehouse Subs franchisees undergo a thorough training program. In total, this process took about eight weeks, beginning with a week-long in-store training session with Alex in Oshawa, where we worked in the restaurant and were immersed in the brand to make sure it was the right fit for us.
From there, we went to the company headquarters in Jacksonville for a day of discovery. We toured head office and explored the different departments. It was great to see where the brand started and meet some of the franchise system’s key players.
We returned to Ontario and began six weeks of intensive training at the Oshawa location. Alex showed us every aspect of the working business, like making sandwiches and talking to customers, filling out reports and creating a staff schedule, and everything in between. Once we completed our in-store training, Olimpia and I returned to Florida for a final week of training at head office to cap everything off.
The training was all-encompassing and rewarding. Most Firehouse Subs franchisees in Ontario are multi-unit, and it was great to know that everyone had committed the same time and energy for training. It demonstrated we are all equally passionate about the brand and committed to its success.