HOW I GOT STARTED
I graduated from Elgin Academy High School in June of 1982. I graduated second to last in my high school class, so my options for college were slim to none.
"When his academic world was sputtering, Jimmy came to my office in need of direction and purpose. We believed and trusted each other from the start! As our confidence and mutual trust broadened, I noticed in front of me, a gentle giant with an equally big heart. It was so clear to me that if Jimmy channeled his tremendous energy and allowed his instincts to triumph over others’ judgments, his achievement would be significant. By following his instincts, he has found his niche of catering to and helping others."
-- Jim Lyons, Elgin Academy Dean for Students
My Dad was a huge believer in the discipline that the Army provides young people. He served in the Army and was stationed in Korea. Both of my brothers served in the Army as well. Military service was a big deal in our household. Naturally, my dad wanted me to enlist after high school, but I really wanted to open a business. My father made a deal with me. He’d lend me $25,000 to start a business, but if it didn’t make a profit in the first year, I’d do a stint in the Army.
My real love was Chicago street food, specifically Chicago-style hot dogs, like Portillo’s serves. The summer that I graduated high school, I visited many hot dog stands in the Chicago suburbs and created a menu from my research as well as a list of the equipment I would need to open.
I went to the used restaurant equipment district on West Madison Street in Chicago to buy my equipment. I found out that I needed about $45K to open a hot dog stand. My budget was $25K so that was out of the question. I then stumbled on to Booby’s Sandwiches in Carbondale, Illinois. When I walked in, I saw a refrigerator, a meat slicer, and a cash register. Way less equipment than the hot dog stand required. From there I switched to sandwiches, and never looked back.
I had to learn to bake bread so I checked out books from the library. I baked and I baked until I got it right. That recipe evolved into the Jimmy John’s bread of today. From there I bought deli meats and I started working on a menu.
By August of 1982, I had four sandwiches for my menu. I had two cousins at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois, so I chose to look there for my first location. I found a site, it was a two car garage that had been remodeled into a pizza joint but it had closed down. The location was surrounded by bars. Perfect! Students drink, they get hungry, I’d stay open late, and I would feed them. Boom!
I opened in January 1983. My dad was my partner, he owned 48% and I owned 52%. The first year we did $155,000 in sales and made $40,000 profit. I split it with my dad. The second year, we did $188,000 in sales and made $50,000 profit. I worked 7 days a week, about 15 hours a day, and my salary was $200 per week, which equated to about 2 bucks an hour.
In May of 1986 I bought out my dad and Jimmy John’s was all mine.
By 1994 I had 10 sub shops, I was doing my own accounting, I paid for everything C.O.D., and I had no debt. I was rolling! Ten years, ten stores, and no debt! America, what a country!
By 2002, I had 160 stores open but 70 were failing. I stopped selling franchises that year and my President and I went on a mission to turn around those 70 failing stores. They weren’t following my system and weren’t committed to the restaurant lifestyle. It took 18 months, we turned around 63 of them and closed 7. I learned a lot from that experience so I changed the rules for allowing people to buy into my system as a franchisee. I explained in detail how tough running a Jimmy John’s can be. I explained the long hours, the unforgiving weather, the late nights, the weekends, and all of the sacrifices that go along with the industry. I made it tough for people to get into the system.
"Jimmy and I made it work! We met with each store owner; we worked alongside them, re-trained them on our brand standards and pulled them up one at a time. The ones we couldn’t pull up made their way out."
-- James North, President and CEO
I have never made a business plan and I never intended for this company to be as big as it is today. It’s simply a byproduct of an effective system, it’s executed flawlessly and consistently by people who care. It’s about the pursuit of awesome, it’s about helping people help themselves; it’s about transparency. It’s not easy, but it’s real, it’s what we love, and it’s what we know.
I learned early that this business is not sexy, its hard work, its long hours, and it can be brutal. If you get past that, it’s one of the most rewarding lifestyles. Everyday transactions take place by choice, and both sides win. It’s called free enterprise. I like that. Winning rocks!
I worked late nights and weekends, took the toughest jobs for myself. I installed a stereo system, played loud great music, and created a very cool work environment. The kids who worked for me worked their butts off, but they got a kick out of my leadership style, so they asked their friends to come work for me. I didn’t have to recruit anymore, they did it for me.
Jimmy John's is a for-profit company. We talk numbers, we measure success, and we expect everyone to be contributors in the organization. We started sharing 25% of the profit with our managers and that incentive exploded the store sales. As we grew, many of the rock stars were promoted from the Jimmy John’s sub shops to become my executives. My President was a Sandwich Maker in 2000 and today he runs this giant company. The stores are a launching pad for people who want to change their lives.
The culture is so deep that it has become a very attractive place to work, to grow, and to win in life. It makes me feel good that I developed a system where people can grow, develop valuable skills and learn to lead. This system teaches people to be proactive, to budget and to save their money. Today, much of the head office team was former Sandwich Makers, Delivery Drivers, Store Managers, or Guerilla Marketers. Many of our franchisees were once employees.
"I started at JJ’s as a franchise consultant in 2007 and I now own 14 stores of my own. I love the JJ brand and the culture. I learned systems, procedures and discipline from Jimmy. When I decided to open my own stores, I was set up for success by having the support of a great team and real culture that Jimmy created. I continue to learn from Jimmy as the company grows."
-- Bryan Skowronek, Former employee, who is now a franchisee with 14 stores open and 11 more on the way.
If you are interested in becoming a franchisee, we'd love to have you visit us to see if we are a fit. It’s not for everyone.
Thanks for reading my story.
UPDATED: November 1, 2016