'It’s time to grow,’ vows Cousins CEO
Recent history hasn’t been kind to Cousins Subs, which peaked at approximately 140 units, but shrank down to 100 units during a seven-year period to right-size the Wisconsin-based sandwich brand known for its “better bread.”
During nine years as president, and the last two with CEO added to her title after her father, Bill Specht, retired, Christine Specht has been making tough decisions to strengthen the brand’s core franchisees, pushing through an expensive remodeling campaign, culling franchisees unwilling to reinvest in the brand and setting up Cousins to bolster growth within its primarily Midwestern turf and beyond.
“We’ve done that, and now it’s time to grow,” Specht said of reducing the brand’s unit count by nearly 30 percent since the dawn of the Great Recession. “Our brand is 45 years old this year, so we have many legacy issues, so some of that contraction was to address some of that legacy and some of the issues that we had to deal with."
For a 45-year-old sandwich maker in an increasingly crowded category, those challenges included outdated store designs and some franchisees who weren’t equipped to double-down on their brand investment.
“It’s not easy to take a brand … and say this is what we’re doing and this is why we believe it’s the right thing to do, and I need you to trust me and walk with me down this path,” she added. “People have embraced it, because … everybody wants to get behind doing the right thing, and they believe this is the right thing to do.”
For the company’s rebranding, which formally began in May of 2016, the Cousins leadership determined it wanted to create a more unified message for its guests in terms of marketing and a consistent dining experience. That effort included service training for employees, redesigned logos and food packaging, and small but significant upgrades to the food—like a 50 percent increase in protein on steak-based subs and giving incentives to franchisees to add grills, rather than some who used microwaves, for tastier cheese-steak sandwiches.
Christine Specht is the daughter of Cousins Subs founder Bill Specht, and is the brand's president and CEO.
“Sometimes you have no choice based on building restrictions and what the specific location can support, but that was a strategy I wanted to move away from,” she said of units with microwaves, rather than grills. “That was one of those early things that helped fast-track the product consistency, and also create a strong, good relationship with our franchise community, saying we are willing to put our money where our mouth is.”
Asked what she’s learned in her nine years at the helm amid a host of significant changes, Specht advised others in a similar position to focus on building a leadership team that’s equally excited about the long-term vision, while also ensuring franchisees are fired up and ready to go.
“They can help drive the message for you,” she said of getting franchisees on board a costly remodeling program. “Communicate with transparency, use your franchise leadership and continue to walk down that path of your strategy, and allow that strategy to be seen through the end—it gets dicey at times.”
Referring to a $90,000 to $350,000 price tag, Specht said she sympathized with franchisees who may have been taken aback by the cost—requiring internal salesmanship that focused on open and honest communication with owner-operators.
Taken as a whole, the brand updates have delivered the goods, with Specht claiming a 30 percent increase in average unit volumes compared with 2011-era numbers. Those AUVs are now “well over $600,000,” which she said has helped convince skeptical franchisees that mandated investments will bolster their bottom lines.
According to the plan, 60 percent of its locations will be remodeled by the end of 2020, and 100 percent of the system will be refreshed by 2020—coinciding with renewal dates of its franchise agreements.
Inside updated Cousins Subs stores, Specht said customers would notice more natural materials—like woods and stone—as well as more neutral colors that “are not going to smack you right in the face with a bright color."
The brand has also introduced new grilled chicken breast products, while also playing up its Wisconsin roots with the addition of cheese curds, Sprecher Brewing Co. sodas, Badger Ham and Sargento cheese—all Dairy State staples.
Specht believes the brand’s family roots, long history, regionally influenced products and small-but-meaningful upgrades will be enough to thrive even as many bigger-name brands flex their own muscles.
“Whether it’s Jimmy John’s, Jersey Mike’s or Firehouse … we realize there’s going to be competition anywhere we go, but we also believe there’s a way for us to differentiate ourselves," she said.