Wednesday, July 05, 2000

Sub shops building identity here

By Lisa Biank Fasig
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Peter Cancro, CEO of Jersey Mike's, and Joe Clark, who owns 10 stores, have fun on the job.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        To the average Cincinnatian, Jersey Mike's is a growing string of sub shops known for shredded lettuce, hard salami and some pretty good sandwiches. Some locals might even think the chain is based here.

        Jersey Mike's founder, Peter Cancro, is grateful that locals know that much. To the New Jersey native, who has spun a single store acquisition at age 17 into a 14-state business, building brand awareness here is as important as the freshness date on his cappacuolo.

        “For so long, not many people knew about us,” Mr. Cancro said. “We grew virtually sandwich by sandwich in the marketplace.”

        These days, Jersey Mike's 14 Cincinnati-area stores average annual sales of $475,000 each.

        The company is projecting 2000 sales of $85 million. It has another 150 stores in development.

        The 43-year-old submeister visited Cincinnati from Manasquan, N.J., earlier this month to help launch the opening of the company's 196th store, a franchise on

        Vine Street downtown. Mr. Cancro and store franchisee Joe Clark, 35, discussed the growth of a sub chain, building brand awareness and some of their favorite things.

        Question: I hear there's an interesting story behind the first restaurant. Please tell.

        Peter Cancro: The original store opened in '56, in a Jersey shore town where everybody used to vacation. I started in '71 and was able to buy the store (for $125,000) in '75, and that was because of a football coach of mine, it was youth football, Pop Warner. I went over to his house on a Sunday night, and he said maybe we can do something, and they ... were able to come up with almost all the money to buy the store.

        Q: How old were you?

        PC: Seventeen. I went to homeroom and history class and skipped a few classes. They weren't going to graduate me, but I came up with a medical excuse for gym. It was a little confusing — no one really knew what was going on, it happened so fast. It was March of my senior year.

        Q: At 17 you weren't even old enough to work the meat slicer.

        PC: Well, according to law, yeah.

        Q: What inspired you?

        PC: I had worked there three, four years before in the summer time. It was really pretty simple. There's a story, when sweeping the floors I used to break the broom sticks.

        Joe Clark: He would sweep so hard that he would snap the brooms.

        Q: You spent a good part of 1999 working the stores. What led to that and is it continuing this year?

        PC: Our whole pitch right now is we're really pushing the training in our business. We have tripled our training time. It used to be 21/2 weeks, now we want the people to train for two months.

        Q: Tell me a little about coming to Cincinnati.

        PC: A friend of mine was interested in investing, and we opened a corporate store out here. 1988 was the first store.

        Q: What are your biggest challenges?

        PC: The most difficult thing, I think it's just building that brand awareness, identity.

        JC: In this market, it's employees. We're not afraid to pay people what it would take to get them to work, it's just getting them to (do the) work. I just went out and invested in hiring a training manager. We want that consistency.

        Q: What's your favorite item at Jersey Mike's?

        PC: No. 12 there, Cancro special (provolone, roast beef and pepperoni). A lot of people came in years ago and always asked for the sandwich that I had, so we put it up on the menu board.

        JC: I'm just a No. 4, the pros cuttini, cappacuolo and provolone cheese loaded up.

        Q: Ever think about going public?

        PC: Sure. (Pause.) At 200 units strong, we don't have to go public to raise capital. We want to make sure that we're very, very strong. We want to try and get up to that 20 percent corporate store level. When we have about 50, 60 corporate stores (18 now), probably 300 franchise stores, then we look at possibly raising capital to go public.

        Q: If you hadn't founded Jersey Mike's, what do you think you'd be doing now?

        PC: I was going to go to North Carolina to play football at Chapel Hill, believe it or not. I was a running back, a defensive back.

        Q: Were you good?

        PC: Absolutely. We won the championship that year ('71). When I see the old tapes I say, "Boy I didn't realize I was that good.'


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