Courtesy of Cousins Subs
Cousins Subs is heading back to Chicago in a renewed franchise push to bring the refreshed brand back to major metros at the Cousins' periphery.
Prior to Cousins CEO Christine Specht's tenure, the company had a handful of locations and a handful of franchisees in the market. The restaurants never reached critical mass and eventually closed down. And since she took over as CEO of the Milwaukee-based brand 11 years ago, the brand hasn’t had any reach into its closest major market.
Given that proximity, Specht said Chicago would be the obvious next step after a complete brand update.
"It just makes sense to us, it’s a huge Midwestern city, we pride ourselves on being a Midwestern brand and it's contiguous to Wisconsin. So our ability to train and support the market as franchisors is very manageable,” said Specht.
But as many beaten and bruised brands have shown, Chicago is not an easy market in which to succeed. Chicagoans love their local brands more than they probably deserve; heck, they drink Chicago-made Malort, which comedian John Hodges described as tasting “like pencil shavings and heartbreak.” And if you’re a pizza brand? Well, good luck.
But Specht said she and the team have enlisted some great talent for the new run at the city.
For one, Darren Tristano, the president of Technomic and founder of the consulting firm Foodservice Results, joined the Cousins board. Specht said the Chicago resident and foodservice guru brings a lot to the table.
“We are just thrilled to have Darren on the board, he’s just starting, had his first board meeting a couple weeks ago. I think his knowledge of the restaurant industry and specifically fast casual, I think that he will give us a perspective that is outside just Wisconsin,” said Specht. “As we talk strategy with our board members I think he'll be able to bring that perspective and back up that perspective with the research he does.”
His new position builds upon a long history with Cousins, she said, as he’s a common speaker at the company’s annual meetings and has a genuine passion for the brand.
And unlike the previous foray into the city, Cousins is opting for a single, sophisticated operator to build out the market. To that end, Cousins awarded the market to OM Group, a multi-brand operator that operates Dunkin Donuts, Wingstop and Rosati’s Pizza. Specht said they’re ready to move fast with a 40-location development deal for the city and surrounding sprawl.
“With the OM Group, their approach is not to build one and wait and see. They really have the intent to build multiple restaurants in a shortened timeframe to get the traction needed. That’s the difference when you have sophisticated operators, they're a little more aggressive, they're not afraid and they’re ready to put the resources into a market,” said Specht. “They already have the infrastructure set up to manage a large operation like this. They know the market and they know what it takes to be successful.”
They have an aggressive timeline of 2025 to have all the locations open. The first just opened in January and will serve as a new flagship for the market in the heart of the city on West Madison, just up the street from Union Station.
Amit Patel said he knows the brand well, and since his mother’s family hails from Wisconsin, they’re well acquainted with the brand and some of his relatives operate franchised locations already. He said the fact that Cousins is still a family business is key since there is a real heritage and the owners aren’t likely to sell it off or give up on the brand. But the transformation that started in 2016 has really changed things.
“Over the last year and a half, it’s undergone significant change not just from a superficial way, but how that franchise is run,” said Patel.
AUVs are up, the remodel is fresh and lively, and Cousins standardized a lot of the operations, moving the grill to the fore of the menu and boosting protein portions to compete with the other meat-centric brands out there.
Specht said that will help the brand stand out in the tough Chicago market better than it once could have.
“I think certainly there is a lot of competition. On one hand, you have a lot of density but on the other had you really have to break though and get the messaging out to a lot of people to get traction,” said Specht. “I think that the market is sizable and challenging, but when you approach it in the right way I believe that we will have success there—no doubt.”
After a Chicago push, Specht said the company would return to the Minneapolis/St. Paul market. She said it's too soon to say if any locations would open this year, but said they’ve identified trade areas and a handful of franchisee prospects for that next push. Similar to Chicago, the brand had operations in the area until 2015, before the brand refresh and other updates.