Cousins Subs

Cousins Lincoln Ave. Project Henry Line

Cousins Subs stays focused on employee satisfaction

while working to remodel and expand its brand. 

By Bianca Herron 

Earlier this year, Wisconsin-based Cousins Subs set out on a journey of reinvention when it announced its rebranding and new market growth strategy. Though many aspects of this 45-year-old brand are undergoing change, one ingredient will remain constant—its product. According to Christine Specht, president and CEO of the fast-casual sub sandwich concept, its product is the formula for success and has remained rooted in the brand’s foundation.

“My dad missed the subs he was used to eating back east in Atlantic City so much that he recruited his cousin, Jim Sheppard, to join him in starting Cousins Subs, which was founded in June of 1972,” Specht says. “They started a legacy of meticulously crafting the finest sandwiches possible—and that’s a quality we’ve prided ourselves on for 45 years.” 

Specht added that the company’s ability to withstand economic ups and downs, growth and contractions – challenges that all restaurants face – is a testament to the company’s employees. “We’ve been able to persevere and stay strong because of the dedicated franchisees, corporate store employees and our support center staff,” she says. “They are the ones that make this work.”

Over the course of its 45-year history, Cousins has made advancements in its menu by streamlining its offerings and introducing a line of grilled subs that can be made with all-white meat, antibiotic free chicken or USDA choice steak. The brand has also added spinach and guacamole as permanent topping options along with a Gourmet Garden salad made with spinach.Cousins Fact Box

“Some of our more notable menu adjustments began in 2012, when we added 50% more meat to our cheese steak line,” she says. “In 2015, we expanded our locally-sourced products to include all Wisconsin-based cheeses, Wisconsin Cheese Curds and Sprecher Root Beer.”

Rebranding A Legacy

Since Cousins announcement of a 10-year rebranding initiative, the company has remodeled 20 percent of its 102 corporate and franchisee stores to a look it calls the Milwaukee Sub Shop – a nod to Cousins’ history and its roots in the city.

“We’ve recognized in the past years that some of our restaurants became tired, so we needed to do something to stay fresh and relevant,” Specht says, adding that the company expects to have 60 percent of its stores remodeled within five years.

“Milwaukee is an industrial city – like all hardworking people in the Midwest – and we really wanted to emulate that in the restaurants,” Specht says. “That’s why we’re remodeling with more modern materials, equipment and furnishings to create a more consistent customer experience across the chain.”

“Should franchisees choose to remodel their location(s), they are responsible for the associated costs. “Remodeling costs for each specific unit vary depending on the current age of the restaurant and size of the space,” says Specht. “The costs to remodel will range from approximately $75,000 for smaller stores with little seating to $350,000 for free-standing buildings with drive-thrus and exterior remodeling requirements.”

If a franchisee opts to not remodel, according to Specht, Cousins will work to see whether it can find another franchisee in its system to purchase the unit. If no viable franchisee is found, it then evaluates the location to see whether it fits the company’s corporate growth strategy. “If the location fits our corporate model, we will work to acquire the unit corporately,” says Specht. “If both of the aforementioned steps do not lead to a sale or transfer, we would close the location; however, we work diligently with each franchisee to ensure the best possible outcome for all parties.”

Justin McCoy, vice president of marketing, notes the company worked with RCS Retail Interiors, a local design firm, for its new look that parts ways with primary colors that indicated “quick service.” “We had a lot of bright reds and yellows, and wanted to go with softer tones that were more fast-causal and relaxed,” he says. “We also wanted to incorporate more timeless elements, such as woods, bricks and metals.”

Prior to the rebrand, its previous logo – which is used across a number of areas, including storefronts, packaging and letterheads – McCoy says they found there wasn’t a lot of flexibility. “We had somewhat of an oval shape in the past and looked at numerous iterations, ultimately tweaking the shape and adding ‘established 1972.’ We thought that was important as it symbolizes our legacy in the sub shop industry.”

In addition, Cousins decided to change its icon back to the original image of founders Specht and Sheppard holding a sub. “We kept coming back to the original icon, even in focus groups, and found that guests had an affinity with it,” McCoy says. “From a vision standpoint, it really defined who we are, and the symbol of having our founding cousins in the logo really carried that through.”

Cousins also saw an opportunity based on consumer feedback and demand to revamp its current operating model, McCoy adds. As a result, it created Project Henry, a sandwich-ordering process named after automobile pioneer Henry Ford and his production assembly line.

“Consumers want to see their food being made in front of them and want to be a part of the process,” McCoy says. “In our original concept, guests could not see all the toppings, which are listed on the menu. This new process results in fewer incorrect sandwiches being made, simply because we’re interacting with guests.”

Though the company has started testing the model in a handful of stores locally in Wisconsin, it does not intend to roll it out in all of its existing units, but only in new-built stores. “Our order accuracy has shot through the roof, upwards of 90 percent, and we’ve seen guests react very well,” McCoy adds.

Tools For Success

All of these initiatives help Jason Valentine, who as vice president of operations says his continual focus and message to employees is the opportunity the brand represents. “We’ve been around a long time, so it’s fun to see franchisees and potential franchisees from other states, see our brand and get excited about our look,” he says. “From a franchisee view, I think when they see what’s going on with our brand, they sense that something great is brewing and want to be a part of it.”

With nearly 400 corporate employees, Cousins expects its workforce to continue to grow, according to Valentine. This will happen as the franchisor continues to explore opportunities for growth both through acquisitions and potential expansion.

Since Cousins announced its remodeling initiative, Valentine says he’s received positive feedback from franchisees – and has witnessed the same zeal among employees – who have already remodeled their location. “Everyone that has gone through the process, you can tell that they’re happy,” he says. “You walk into one of the stores and can see the employees really appreciate it and enjoy their new surroundings.”

Not only has the initiative attracted prospective employees, it’s impacted current staff as they see the company reinvesting into the brand. “Ultimately, they see that there’s a place for them to grow,” Valentine says. “For example, we recently received our new multi-use food truck, which has a full restaurant inside of it and will travel to new market locations to inform people about our brand. That created three new positions for our employees, all of whom we promoted from within. Then we filled those open positions from within, giving others an opportunity to advance.”

With employee growth and advancement being priorities for Cousins, Specht says the company has emphasized working continuously with current employees and franchisees by offering them training programs on how to develop and retain the best staff in the restaurant industry.

“There’s so much competition to get high-quality employees, so when you find them you want to keep them,” she says. “You do that by keeping them engaged, giving them a career path, and training and helping them feel like they’re making a difference.”

Valentine notes that to recruit the right people to fit its culture, Cousins has developed a People Development Plan called the “Eight Qualities of a Cousins Subs Employee.”

“One of the main qualities is a servant’s heart,” he says. “With that, we’re looking for people that want to serve others, whether it’s their coworkers or guests. The other qualities are motivated, energetic, respectful, presentable, honest and trustworthy, hustle and multitasker. We focus on those qualities throughout our culture and training and encourage employees to continuously seek ways to improve across those areas.”

In addition, the company has implemented a number of training tools to improve operations. One of them is CousinsU, an online training platform that is mobile-friendly. “We made this initiative about one year ago to focus on tools that provide all employees the ability to do their job well and excel at it,” he says. “Our training website is also an app, so when hired at Cousins, employees automatically get an account and can take the courses online as they grow in their career.”

A former employee, who is now a graphic designer, designed the courses, which include animated videos that are three to five minutes long. Employees can also take part in drawing and interactive quizzes. “We’ve basically gamified learning, as it’s all about engaging employees,” Valentine says. “They have responded overwhelmingly with excitement and some have even suggested ideas about games that could help them learn.”

Cousins offers hands-on training as well, hosting events throughout the year to physically be in front of employees as much as possible, including quarterly field training sessions. “Employees either come to our office or we go to their region, and our support system puts on live training,” Valentine says. “We also host special classes for those that want to go above and beyond learning. An example is ‘Learning to Lead,’ which provides tips on how to lead your crew and environment. The rest are smaller classes based on an employee’s position and what they’re looking to learn. They’re not all required, but some are in order to get advance to certain positions.”

The company also recently started testing a new POS system in an effort to limit mistakes and streamline service. “One of the things that our team does is ensure that processes are efficient and the new POS system is the starting point of what an employee has to go through to learn the process as well as all of our systems in place,” Valentine says.

“Our new POS system is slated to roll out in the first quarter of 2017, with the goal of having the entire system updated in a six- to seven-month period,” he adds. “We want to do two to three stores a week in order to provide hands-on training at a local level. So we’re going to send a traveling team there and provide store employees the time they deserve to learn.”


‘Couldn’t Be Happier”

Although Specht had her first job in the company was when she was 15 years old, she didn’t officially join the family business until 2001 as the HR manager and has since developed professionally with the company, becoming president and CEO in 2015.

“At the time, Cousins was creating a formal human resources department,” she explains. “This was after I completed grad school, yet I didn’t plan on working for the family business – not for any particular reason, my parents just let me forge my own way in life. However, at that time I had some HR experience in my prior job and everything just aligned for me to become their first HR manager. I couldn’t be happier now and Cousins Subs is exactly where I want to be. I look forward to leading our system into the future as we continue to grow our brand for years to come.”


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