In the News

Traditional East Coast Subs Spurs National Craving For Jersey Mike’s

May 4, 2012 • Sunbelt Foodservice Magazine - The Shelby Report, Shelby Publishing Co., Inc • By Ashley Bates, Staff Writer

Besides the crisp salt air and blue waves of the Jersey Shore, the seaside town of Point Pleasant has another landmark that makes the town extra special.

The original Jersey Mike’s Subs, which opened in 1956, sits just a mile or so from the beach. Jersey Mike’s COO Mike Manzo said when he worked at the restaurant in high school, riding your bike and grabbing a sub before heading to the shore was just a way of life in the community.

“You are about a mile from the ocean so we ­didn’t have a lot of visibility, but we had a good product and people knew where to park, where to drop their bikes, and come in and eat ­sandwiches,” said Manzo, who likened the eatery to other famous landmarks like The Varsity in Atlanta.

The menu at Jersey Mike’s has remained nearly the same for 55 years, but in the past couple of years the franchise has become one of the most popular sub shops, spreading across the country from New Jersey to California.

The taste of authentic East Coast-style subs on fresh baked bread is taking metropolitan and suburban areas by storm. Last year the company had record unit growth of 15 ­percent and awarded contracts to open 216 restaurants in 76 territories. The franchise has 600 restaurants today.

“Percentage-wise, we are putting up a lot of stores. Last year we opened 70 stores; this year should be over 100,” Manzo said. “A couple of years ago it was 15; 45 another year. It’s slow growth, but I like to say it was pretty methodical and we would only sell franchises to people who were going to wear the apron, really have a passion for food and serving customers. Having a great attitude behind the counter — I think that’s what makes us so special, and it really starts with our sales process.”

The history of the Jersey Mike’s is one of entrepreneurship and giving back, the company says. Founder and CEO Peter Cancro started the company at age 17, before he was even legally able to slice a sub. He began working at Mike’s Subs — Jersey Mike’s original name — at the age of 14. When Cancro was a senior in high school, he overheard Mike’s Subs’ owner discussing selling the business.

Cancro pitched the idea of buying Mike’s to his football coach, who also was a banker. He agreed to help Cancro get the financing for the restaurant.

“Our quality and quantity haven’t changed over the years. We’ve actually been with the same vendors. We haven’t really changed the menu, and we don’t have a lot of menu items coming up for the future,” Manzo said. “We had a new menu item last year, a version of a cheesesteak, and that is the extent of our range. I don’t think we are going to bring in hamburgers or hot dogs or something like that. We are doing something pretty special here already. It is difficult to be top rated and have such high volume, and if you complicate the business, it is going to take away from the energy and the excitement of coming in.”

Each Jersey Mike’s sub is customized to the customer’s specifications; most subs are topped “Mike’s Way™,” with onions, lettuce, tomatoes and a signature blend of olive oil, red wine vinegar and spices.

Every sub is fresh sliced or grilled, the same way they were made 55 years ago.

Featured subs on the menu include the Jersey Shore’s Favorite with provolone, ham and cappacuolo; The American Classic with ham and provolone; The Super Sub with provolone, ham, prosciuttini and cappacuolo; the Famous Roast Beef and Provolone; The Original Italian; and the Club Sub.

Jersey Mike’s also serves ­several hot subs, including a couple of Philly variations, a Meatball Sub, Chicken Parm and a Pastrami Reuben. For those looking for healthier ­options, there are wraps on the menu.

Manzo said his favorite sub is the No. 5 Super Sub — served Mike’s Way, of course.

Manzo has been making subs at Jersey Mike’s since the late 1970s. He came up through the restaurant “wearing the apron,” and after serving four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, he managed the original store in 1985. In 1987, the name was changed to

Jersey Mike’s from Mike’s Subs, and the company began franchising.

Since 2006, Manzo has served as Jersey Mike’s COO. Before that, he was SVP and director of operations.

Sunbelt Foodservice staff writer Ashley Bates spoke with Manzo about the popularity of Jersey Mike’s, the key to the company’s booming ­success and what makes the perfect sub.

 Q: What is your background with Jersey Mike’s? You started out at Mike’s Subs, which became Jersey Mike’s, is that correct?

A:  Yes, Peter owned Mike’s Subs. If we take it back to 1975 when he (Cancro) was in high school—when he was 17 years old, he purchased Mike’s Subs. A few years later I started working with him when I was in high school. After graduating from high school in ’81, I went into the Marine Corps and in ’85, I started managing the only store we had at the time. In 1986, we changed the name to Jersey Mike’s and started franchising.

Q: What made Jersey Mike’s so special that you went back there after serving in the military?

A: It was an institution that had been around since 1956 and it was always a great tradition to work there, it was an honor to work there because of the high volume. Peter always gave back to the community and we were always revered as great businessmen. It wasn’t a business to make money, it was a business to ­support the community and give back. That was Peter’s mantra from day one. That is what he learned from ­business people when he was growing up in the small town of Point Pleasant.

I went back there just to start working and didn’t have any intentions of staying there until we started franchising. At that point I said, “Let’s make a run at this.” When you are 22 or 23, you have a lot of goals and ambitions and you don’t have any fear. I think we opened about 35 stores in the early ’90s, and then that recession came by and that was a very deep recession in the early ’90s, and we picked it back up in ’96 and from ’96 to about 2002 we had some pretty good incremental growth. Then when that ­recession came in 2008, we slowed down again. We’re hoping to come out stronger (from this one) than ever before.

We really try to get the right people on board. There are a lot of good people out there,

but they don’t qualify because some people aren’t comfortable with (having to be hands-on every day), The operator has to be on the franchising agreement, and we have to approve the ­operator.

If we continue focusing on what we have been focusing on since 1956, being successful, making great sandwiches with great people and a friendly environment—we should be fine going through these times.

Q: What do you think is the secret to creating the perfect sub?

A: I think that a perfect sub—a guy stopped me in the airport and said “I love your brand” and I think the food comes secondary —has to do with the person behind the counter. If you have the right people behind the counter, it’s great, it’s about the people.

Making sure you put the right amount of ingredients goes right back to our training.

Q: Are there certain markets that seem to be hot­spots for new franchises?

A: The Chicagoland market, with upwards of 10 million people, has been treating us well. We have over 35 stores there now, with another 42 being built. The Chicago customer really enjoys our product. California and Phoenix are liking us, too. We are trying to jumpstart the state of Florida, but they are in a deep recession right now. I think we will have 15 new units this year. Dallas and the Houston area are good growth down there.

As you go across the country, we have 10 different markets and 10 stores opening up this year—you magically get 100 stores. We also have been converting old sub shops into Jersey Mike’s. Last year I think that number was near 30. It could be an independent or a national brand that has closed its doors.

Q: Why do you think cutting the deli meat to order makes a better end product?

A: When people ask me to describe the difference between Jersey Mike’s and the competitor…We slice the meats to order, as people will say, “like they do in the New York delis.”

You actually can’t get any fresher than that, and it’s the customization of someone’s lunch.

Since 1956, we’ve used the assembly line process where you hold up that piece of fresh roast beef that is medium rare, that was made today or yesterday, and then the fresh baked bread…We try to be as fresh as possible. This year we are coming out with a marketing plan called City of Origin Labeling and we call it COOL. In the food industry, the consumer wants to know where the product comes from, and all of our products are made in the U.S.A. except for, for a small window of time, our tomatoes. Other than that, our tomatoes come from the good old United States.

Q: Do you have a certain meat supplier?

A: We use Certified Angus Beef, we use Jennie-O Turkey Store. All the companies we use are highly rated and highly regarded. They are very important to us.

Q: Do you bake bread in each store daily?

A: We bake our bread fresh each morning, and at each store the managers turn the bread ovens on and then they have to slice the onions fresh, lettuce and tomatoes. It has to go in that order because you have to get the onion smell out of the store. The managers say that they cry every morning because they slice the onions. That’s always a joke

Q: Can you tell me about the original location in Point Pleasant (above)? What is the experience like of going into that restaurant?

A: That has been around since 1956 and it looks it. Back in the day, there would be two counters, a meat case and there were nine sandwiches on the board. They would go through 1,200 sub rolls a day. When I managed it, the most I ever did was about 1,000 subs in a day. It became a landmark.

Q: Last year you went to Pepsi in your stores. Why?

A: This was the second round of negotiations between Coke and Pepsi. We’ve been supporters for many years, so for the competitor to come in is quite difficult.

Pepsi has been around to grow our brand, and the loyalty to our vendors is important to us. The loyalty to our franchisees is important to us, too. we don’t chase the nickels and dimes to get a better price on ham or beef or for soda, for that matter. What is more important to us is food safety and loyalty to the vendor and if something were to go wrong, we would be there to back them up and for them to back us up. There have been times over the years that this has been tested, and we are really proud of our partnership with Pepsi.

Q: New Jersey is very trendy right now. What do you attribute that to?

A: Remember when “The Sopranos” were very popular and then there was Bruce (Springsteen)? There are some wonderful people that have come out of this state.

It’s not New York and it’s not Philly, it’s New Jersey. I don’t know why it happens, but it’s just the way the ball is rolling right now. I think they talk about living by the water and you have the negative ions coming off the water and it calms you down a little, maybe that’s what is going on…Today is a beautiful day on the Jersey Shore with hundreds of people sitting by the beach. It’s a cross between the ­beautiful beach towns in North Carolina and near New York you get to come home to your neighborhood.

"Jersey Mike’s Subs," "Jersey Mike’s," and "Mike’s Way" are registered trademarks of Jersey Mike’s Franchise Systems, Inc.