As former firefighters, brothers Robin and Chris Sorensen know that quality and quantity are both important when it comes to a sandwich. So when they co-founded Firehouse Subs in 1994, their vision involved providing better service and a better restaurant experience for their customers. It also involved more meat.
“We made a list of things we thought we had to do to be different and be competitive, and it came down to the concept, and it came down to the experience at the floor level and service levels,” Robin says. “And then it came down to the food.”
Over the years, Firehouse built a reputation for its appetite worthy portions of premium meats and cheeses. With the advantage of being one of the least expensive brands in the fast-casual segment — competitors include Five Guys and Panera Bread rather than Subway — the company steadily grew its regional foothold from Jacksonville, Fla., to 300 locations in 17 states.
But at the beginning of 2007, all of that changed. The restaurants started losing traffic.
“Up until that point, we never had a down quarter,” Robin says. “We’d been building on a continuous basis, and we didn’t even realize how good we had it.”
While the brothers didn’t know it yet, the company’s problem went deeper than the economic recession. The problem was “crappy” marketing.
“What we learned is that people who weren’t eating there — they didn’t really understand what we were,” Robin says. “The Subway customer assumed when they saw our sign that we were just like Subway.”
Root out the problem
Facing some of the darkest days in Firehouse’s history, founders Chris and Robin knew that the company’s franchisees were looking to them for reassurance. Feeling that they owed it to them to look at every opportunity to revive business, they took input from owners and employees, realizing that many of the ideas weren’t viable options.
“For the first time, we could feel the weight of the system on our shoulders, almost literally looking at us and asking, ‘What are we going to do?’” Robin says.
“Some of them were saying we should cut our portions down — which my blood pressure is going up thinking about it. But we had to look at different opportunities. That whole process — all it did was lead us to say, ‘We’ve got to do something.’”
Both felt strongly that they couldn’t jeopardize the quality or quantity that defined the Firehouse Subs brand in exchange for short-term profits. But they agreed they couldn’t stand still either. So as they debated how to handle the declining numbers, the Sorensens also started taking a hard look at their advertising agency.
The company had talked about changing advertising agencies in the past. And seeing the poor results of recent efforts, its leadership offered the agency one last opportunity to present its ideas on how to resuscitate customer traffic. Needless to say, they weren’t impressed.
“Basically, we were out of options,” Robin says. “We weren’t in great shape. So we did something drastic.”
Feeling more and more that the reason for poor performance stemmed from ineffective brand marketing, the leaders proposed a radical change.
In the summer 2008, they decided to rescind the 2 percent in royalties that franchisees paid the company for its corporate marketing efforts. Instead, they told franchisees that they could keep the money — if they agreed to do their own marketing.
“We came up with a comprehensive plan on what they need to do with that money at their discretion, the old fashioned stuff — hiring sign wavers, developing catering, knocking on doors, ‘touching’ people, speaking at the chamber — all of the things that helped us build the company,” Robin says.
Then they hopped on a bus, traveling around the country to present the new marketing plan to store owners with a national founder’s tour. A key part of the presentation was showing franchisees how to execute the new, guerrilla-style marketing initiatives.
“We’d have 10 people from our office get off the bus and we’d all hit three, four or five stores depending on the city,” Robin says. “We would go out and market those stores on the ground ourselves with them to show them how to get it done. We always built sales wherever we were at. So it was radical, but we tried it.”
After six months, about 20 percent of the system was really on board and executing on the suggestions. So the brothers decided to extend the efforts for another six months.
In the end, the local marketing ramp-up wasn’t enough to stop the decline. Continuing to lose traction, the company closed out the 2008 year down 6 percent in comparable store sales. By 2009, the company was falling nearly 7 percent. The Firehouse Subs brand still wasn’t registering with the customers; and Chris and Robin went shopping for a new advertising agency.
Focus on the right customers
As they began their search, the brothers looked for a smaller agency where they would know the owners personally. So they were skeptical when their consultant proposed a meeting with Zimmerman Advertising, an agency worth $2 billion whose clients include high-profile brands such as Papa John’s Pizza.
“I said, ‘Let’s not even go down there to Ft. Lauderdale because they are too big,’” Robin says. “‘We’re going to be lost in the shuffle.’ And the consultant said, ‘They are different people down there. They are a unique agency, and I’ve seen a lot of them. … I think you guys are going to hit it off.’”
Compared to the last 20 presentations they’d gone through, Zimmerman was the only agency so far that had no marketing ideas to pitch. As they sat down to meet with the company’s leadership, its staff admitted that they didn’t know much about who Firehouse was. Instead, they pitched themselves.
The agency’s founder, Jordan Zimmerman, pointed out that both of the company’s previous agencies had pitched their ideas for the business before they even had time to research who and its customers were. But Zimmerman did things differently.
“His point was how do they know if that’s right when they haven’t had enough time or money to go out and really do thorough research?” Robin says. “And he was right.”
So when the meeting was over, they hired Zimmerman as their new agency. They also gave them the money to go out and do the necessary market research to develop their brand strategy. The agency used techniques such as intercepting customers — going into other stores and offering them a free lunch at Firehouse Subs in exchange for feedback — Zimmerman soon figured out why the company was losing customers. The brand needed to reach more people.
At the time, the company had lost about 10 percent of its traffic. But while the owners were so focused on getting those people back in the door, they’d also overlooked an essential question: are these the right people?
“The point is — they’re gone,” Robin says. “We weren’t really focusing on the 90 percent that are OK with our proposition. So we started trying to better understand who those customers are and who other customers are.”
The agency also told the brothers that it would take a 4 percent investment from each of the franchisees to execute a new brand marketing strategy.
“I said to them, ‘So you’re asking me to go our franchisees and say not only do you have to give me the 2 percent back that we let you keep temporarily, but you’re required to, and you need to give us two more that you’re not required to?’” Robin says. “It was radical.”
But while knocking on doors worked occasionally, the customer data made it clear that Firehouse Subs had to reach more consumers with its message if it was going to stay profitable.
“The simplicity of it was just 'find more people,'” Chris says. “Tell them who we are and why we’re better. With the economy down, there were a certain number of people who couldn’t afford to eat with us, and we weren’t going to get them back until the economic situation was corrected. But there were thousands upon thousands of people that we could reach, which is what we did.”
Try a new tactic
With the help of Zimmerman, Robin and Chris began making the changes to the company’s marketing and advertising. First, the company increased its emphasis on the items that make it different from competitors — its big portions of quality meats. At the heart of the strategy was the radio.
The agency suggested that, as founders, Robin and Chris should represent the brand in radio commercials. Instead of discounting the price, they’d focus on Firehouse Subs’ bigger portions and fresh-sliced, steamed meat and cheese. The commercials would also include a new slogan: “Our way beats their way. If you don’t agree, it’s free.” By mentioning the price in the commercials, customers would know exactly what to expect coming into the restaurants — a medium hook and ladder for $5.39, not a $5 footlong.
“We’re giving a guarantee,” Robin says. “So if you take one bite and you don’t like it, we’ll give you your money back. While everybody is talking about smaller sandwiches — $2 torpedoes, $5 footlongs — we’re going to be the only one talking about premium.”
At first, Chris and Robin were hesitant about going on the radio, even as they helped write and develop the spots. So they began a 10-week test run, doing radio spots in Jacksonville, Fla., Knoxville, Tenn., and Augusta, Ga.
“We were concerned about not doing it well, and we don’t want the system thinking that we think it’s all about us,” Robin says. “What if we fail at it? So Zimmerman was like, ‘If you suck, we’ll be the first to tell you.’”
Within days of starting the radio campaigns, the stores saw 10 to 15 percent lifts.
“Without discounting, without changing who we were, without coming up with the next cheap sandwich, we stuck to what’s made us who we are and just started blasting the airwaves and finding new customers,” Chris says. “And it worked.”
Bring the fight home
The company now had real data in its back pocket showing that the radio worked. But now, Chris and Robin had to go back to owners with the new marketing strategy and convince them to invest in it. In summer 2009, the company held its first ever corporate-wide conference to introduce the new agency and new marketing investment.
The brothers explained the tests and the results of radio campaigns. They explained the big picture and the vision. Because the plan to give owners the reins over marketing hadn’t worked, they felt that they had even more authority to ask franchisees to support the changes.
“If we hadn’t given them money to try it on their own, they may have demanded some other options,” Robin says.
“We said, ‘You’ve had this for a year. We tried an agency. We couldn’t get results. We gave them an opportunity to present their ideas. They weren’t good. We tried it. Check. Then we gave you the money for a year. It didn’t work enough to turn us around. Check. Now we have a new agency.”
They asked the 80 percent attendance of franchisees in attendance to double down on their investment into the corporate marketing. In the following five months, they held meetings with the other 20 percent to get their support. In the end, everybody who was eligible to be on the radio voted to do it.
“As much money as we spent, it came down to buying the right media to talk to the right group of people, and hitting it heavy with the right message,” Robin says.
“The bottom line is that it was a major risk, a double down in a bad economy, and it absolutely was the most phenomenal thing we’ve ever done.”
Since the second quarter of 2009, the company has continued to increase sales 4 to 6 percent every year, fueling its expansion to approximately 500 locations today. Revenue for 2010 was an impressive $256 million. The brothers have already invested close to $5 million of their own money in the radio campaigns. Yet there is still one thing they would have done differently a second time around.
“Fired our agency earlier,” Chris says.
How to reach: Firehouse Subs, (800) 388-3473 or www.firehousesubs.com
1. Figure out where you need to improve.
2. Rethink your market of customers.
3. Step outside your communication comfort zone.
The Sorensen File
Chris and Robin Sorensen
Born: Jacksonville, Fla.
Favorite Firehouse sub:
Robin: Smokehouse Beef & Cheddar Brisket
Chris: Smoked Turkey Breast
About the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation
Mission: To buy life-saving equipment for fire, police and other public safety institutions
Robin: We’ve saved lives with the equipment that we’ve donated, and it’s really taken on a life of its own. People understand Ronald McDonald House, and that’s big part of who they are. We want the same thing with Firehouse, because not many companies have really made a great connection like that, like we have. We started it from the heart because we enjoyed it and thought it would be great. One of our agencies put it as one of our brand pillars in who we are. It’s one of the pillars of building a great business in the community.
About 50 percent of the donations come from the store and our customers. The other 50 come from our vendors, franchisees, Chris and I and our partner Steven. We’ve put in almost $600,000 of it ourselves.
What are the best business lessons that you’ve each learned in your careers?
Robin: One of the biggest failures — there’s two parts to it. One is people just aren’t willing to do what it takes to grow their business. You hear it in the way they talk about it, ‘I’m willing to do this, but I’m not willing to do that. I’m not willing to put the hours in.’ They set parameters on themselves: ‘I’ll work five days a week, but I’m not working on Saturday during the college football season.’ When we opened up, it wasn’t that we said we’ll do anything; that was our philosophy and mindset. The other part of is, are you in it for you or are you in it for the company — the frugality piece.
Chris: I was told this advice from an old mentor of mine. He told us if you want to be a smart business owner, you don’t buy expensive cars or a yacht. He told us if you can’t write a check for it, don’t buy it. My brother and I still practice this to this day.