Between Two Buns
Don Davey is not above hanging out at a Firehouse Subs dumpster, if it means learning why garbage costs are too high.
Winner: Firehouse Subs
Finalists: Charley’s Grilled Subs, Cousins Subs, Erbert & Gerbert’s
Don Davey played in the NFL for 10 years, five years with the Green Bay Packers in Wisconsin and five years with the Jaguars in Jacksonville, Florida. At the latter post, by chance he was paired with the founders of Firehouse Subs, Robin and Chris Sorensen, in a charity golf tournament.
The brothers, from a family of firefighters, had in 1994 decided to open a shop selling sub sandwiches with a firehouse theme, much to the anger of their forebears. “They had begged, borrowed and stole $25,000 for the first one,” Davey recalls, and as third-generation firefighters they knew “grandpa’s going to kill us and dad’s going to kill us. But we’ve thought this out.”
Today that theme has proven a boon, differentiating Firehouse Subs from the massive numbers of competing concepts out there, and also providing a unifying focus for charitable efforts. All franchisees contribute to the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, providing equipment to first responders, and they say those efforts embed their sandwich shops in each community served.
After his pro football career Davey launched a wealth planning firm called Discipline Equity Management, and began investigating suitable investments for pro athletes who needed a career beyond football. “I have a master’s in mechanical engineering so I’m a numbers geek. I spent my NFL off seasons teaching myself investing,” he says.
By this time Robin and Chris had opened 12 Firehouse Subs shops and had begun franchising. “I started digging into that. I said screw my NFL buddies, I’m going to keep this one for myself,” he says with a laugh. Today he owns 12 units in Orlando and some 20 in Wisconsin; in each locale he has an operating partner who runs the day-to-day while he handles finances, lease negotiations and the like.
That split in duties is something he highly recommends, to put people in charge of what each does best. But his foundational advice is to dig in and really see how a business works.
When starting with Firehouse, he worked at the Jacksonville restaurant for three months. “They would have me unpack inventory, and wipe down tables, and make toast. As I was doing that, a lot of my daughter’s friends, and my daughter’s friends’ moms, would see me behind the counter. They said, ‘Poor Mr. Davey, he was in the NFL and now he’s making $5 an hour behind the counter,’” he recalls with a laugh, pointing out he was actually working for free as a soon-to-be owner. But he did it “to make sure I understood the operations of things ... now the financials made sense to me, how can this one be more profitable than that one?”
One time, perplexed why one restaurant’s garbage removal costs were way out of line, he called his operating partner, Scott Anthony. “I said to Scott, let’s hang out by the dumpster. And sure enough our crew was doing what we wanted them to do, but the other businesses” were throwing stuff in their garbage. “We bought a combination padlock and we put it on. Literally the trash volume cut in half.” That type of attention to detail will make all the difference to operators, he believes.
'You have to bet on yourself'
Brandon and Stephanie Ensley, meanwhile, have five Firehouse Subs restaurants in the Portland, Oregon, area with a development agreement for eight total. The couple were living in Denver, and one of Stephanie’s coworkers mentioned Firehouse as a good place to try. “We went to one,” says Brandon, and “the concept, the atmosphere, the vibe” appealed. “There weren’t any on the West Coast at the time,” so Brandon quit his job as an airline pilot and they jumped.
“We both were naïve and we had a mentality that if we both were working our hardest we would be rewarded,” says Stephanie.
Adds Brandon: “There’s a risk involved but you have to bet on yourself.”
The couple had minimal debt at the time they launched. “We didn’t have a mortgage, we didn’t have kids, vehicles were paid off,” says Brandon, something he would recommend to others. Stephanie adds to plan for a full year of hundred-hour work weeks before new owners can breathe a bit easier.
“I would say you have to be 100 percent confident and not be embarrassed by anything the brand serves or participates in,” adds Stephanie.
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