Say the words “better bread” to anyone who grew up in Southeast Wisconsin and they are likely to respond with “better subs,” then sing, “Cous-ins Suuuuuubs,” echoing local radio and TV spots of their youth.
In other parts of the country, the jingle is unfamiliar. Cousins Subs is virtually unknown.
“People who grew up here are surprised to learn Cousins is not a national brand,” says Christine Specht, president and CEO at Cousins Subs, during a recent tour of the company’s Milwaukee headquarters.
Specht and the rest of her management team at the sandwich concept plan to change that.
Before expanding into its first targeted new market—its neighbor to the south, the northern suburbs of Chicago—the 44-year-old sandwich brand is getting a thorough going-over and sprucing up. The rebranding of Cousins Subs is all-encompassing, including interior and exterior remodels, updated packaging, restaurant employee uniforms, logos, signage, and more. Even the service line is getting a new look, with some existing and new restaurants adopting an assembly-line format.
The changes are in various stages of implementation, but nothing is being rushed. Company-owned stores are going through the interior and exterior transformations first, and franchised locations are slated for renovations as agreements come due.
The overall goal of the rebranding is consistency, a streamlined look and feel across all locations as Cousins Subs seeks to expand into new markets. Over the next five years, Cousins is focused on establishing corporate stores in 10 Midwestern states surrounding Wisconsin. Specht says Cousins is also looking to award multiunit franchise agreements to augment this growth strategy in these areas.
At press time, there were 104 Cousins Subs locations—101 in Wisconsin and three in Arizona. Twenty-two of those are corporate stores and the rest are franchisee-operated. More than 30 remodels will be complete by the end of 2016. The target date for all Cousins locations to have adopted what is being called “The Milwaukee Sub Shop” restaurant design is 2026.
“We were very careful and deliberate because we are a small organization and we can’t make mistakes,” Specht says.
Tim Hackbardt of BrandTrip Partners, a San Diego–based chain restaurant consulting group, says that when it comes to rebranding, there are two schools of thought. Legacy brands like Cousins that haven’t had major changes in a long time will often go through a complete rebranding. Brands like Starbucks, he says, are constantly evolving and changing in smaller increments.
“A major rebranding is more common for a legacy brand,” he says. “If they haven’t evolved in so long, they are behind other chains and may experience waning sales, negative online reviews, and lowered customer satisfaction. They have to do something to prevent deteriorating as a brand.”
Hackbardt says companies differ in how they roll out a major rebranding, with some doing it in bits and pieces and others taking more time. He says the right way depends upon how the brand is structured.
“Franchisees don’t have an unlimited bank account, so to do a rebrand instantly isn’t realistic,” he says. “If it’s corporate owned, that’s easier. … Corporate stores can be a case study. They take their own dollars and do what they think needs to be done, and then report back to franchisees. In cases where a rebranding program is really successful for corporate stores, franchisees will want to jump in right away.”
Specht’s father, Bill Specht, retired as CEO and turned the reins over to his daughter in 2015. He and cousin Jim Sheppard—the two guys depicted carrying a giant sandwich in a now-revitalized original logo—brought the taste of East Coast sandwiches to their adopted hometown and opened the first Cousins Subs in Milwaukee in 1972. From the beginning, the use of top-quality ingredients was stressed, and the “Better Bread. Better Subs” tagline was coined.
That history has not been left behind in the rebranding. In fact, it plays a more prominent role.
“For 40 years, that story has been told, but it has not been a focal point in our restaurants,” the younger Specht says. “Introducing items that have been part of our history keeps us grounded in our values and what it is we do here.”
In order for Cousins Subs support staff to get a feel for the rebranding, the company’s corporate headquarters in the Milwaukee suburb of Menomonee Falls was completely remodeled in 2016.
“The building was more than 20 years old and felt dated,” says Justin McCoy, Cousins’ vice president of marketing. “As we remodeled stores, it felt important to remodel this building, too, not only for the support center staff who work here every day, but [also] for the franchisees and future investors who visit.”
The sectioned-off, dimly-lit, low-ceilinged office space was opened up, giving visitors at the front door an unobstructed view to the back the building and staff an abundance of natural light and a collaborative work environment. The décor mimics that of the remodeled restaurants, with a neutral color palette and solid surfaces like stone, wood, and steel. Several pieces of memorabilia are now on display at the corporate headquarters, including the original sandwich board and signage from the first location, and a menuboard from the second location. Meeting rooms are named after the brand’s first six locations.
Cousins Subs corporate headquarters includes a full restaurant that, while not open to the public, is used for training, research, development, and testing.
“Having this on site ties us back to the stores,” says Joe Ferguson, vice president of development. “That’s important, because we make our money in the stores.”
There are, however, fewer Cousins Subs stores than there once were. Between 2008 and 2011, all franchise agreements and corporate locations were evaluated. Cousins reduced the number of stores by 41 and reinvested in the acquisition of seven locations corporately.
“It’s not popular to close stores,” Specht says. “But it’s like pruning a tree. We needed to make things right and work through some negatives, and now we’re focused on the positive.”
From 2011 through the end of 2015, same-store sales for units open during that period were up 16 percent, and the average check increased 21 percent. Average unit volume (auv) increased by 33 percent from 2011 to 2015, and by the end of 2015, AUV for traditional stores reached $600,000, putting Cousins in what Specht believes is an appealing position for future investors.
The rebranding is obvious before a guest walks into a remodeled Cousins Subs. The exterior design changes are consistent with the interior design, featuring an earth-tone color palette, wood features, and industrial finishes. Renovated stores feature door graphics with the tagline “local at heart” above the name of the city the particular store is located in. And the tagline on the exterior signage over the front of the store no longer reads, “Better Bread. Better Subs,” but rather “Grilled and Deli Fresh.”
Announcing the fact that Cousins Subs’ signature offerings are available grilled was a priority.
“There was a big push a few years ago to get grills into all stores, so we want to get that message out there,” Ferguson says. “Grilled puts us into a better category, so ‘Grilled and Deli Fresh’ is a better description of what we do.”
Hackbardt says including exterior remodeling in a rebranding effort is wise because it’s the first component that signals change to consumers.
Once through the doors, guests see a continuation of the colors and materials in an environment designed to encourage them to stay awhile. There is a variety of seating options, including banquettes, bar-top seating, small tables, and even a large community table seating six or eight if space and layout allow.
“We want a mix of seating, and we went to all stores to make sure there was adequate WiFi and outlets so people can sit and work if they want,” Ferguson says.
McCoy says a “fortunate byproduct” of store renovations is the ability to attract young employees.
“Young people want to work in a contemporary environment, not a tired environment,” he says. “And that enthusiasm will re-energize our current stores.”
The remodeled restaurants also incorporate wall art defining the Cousins Subs cuisine philosophy of baking bread fresh; slicing meats, cheeses, and veggies daily; and grilling subs made to order. Each store also has what is known as a “foundation wall” to communicate contributions to the Cousins Make it Better Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization supporting health and wellness, youth education, and fighting hunger in the communities where Cousins operates.
Though the food has not changed in the rebranding, the menuboard has been redesigned and simplified to guide guests through the ordering process.
Perhaps the biggest change to Cousins Subs is the adoption of a new operations model in select stores. Project Henry is an assembly-line ordering process (the name honors Henry Ford) that will be featured in all new Cousins Subs locations outside of Wisconsin. It’s being tested in six Wisconsin stores.
In Project Henry stores, guests start in the back of the store and work their way to the front, where they pay. They select sandwich components rather than ordering a specific sandwich off the menuboard at the front of the store, paying for it, and picking it up at the back of the store.
“It’s an attempt to attract the next generation of consumers,” Specht says. “Millennials want choice and are visual.” She points out that customization was always available at Cousins Subs, but the words “your options are” were near the end of the menuboard. At Project Henry stores, that menuboard panel comes first, and guests interact with frontline staff to customize their sub as it’s being made.
One of the first locations to test Project Henry was near Milwaukee’s Marquette University, where it was well received by students and neighborhood residents. In other areas, Specht says, there was a learning curve for customers, with some initial pushback. Eventually, though, the new system was embraced.
Hackbardt says any change in service operations includes a risk of alienating the loyal customer base.
“You risk that when rebranding, especially when changing how guests go through the process,” he says. “Project Henry was a risk. Customers could get confused and wonder if they can still get what they like. But it sounds like [Cousins was] very sensitive to current guests in Wisconsin.” He adds that when a brand changes the physical layout of a restaurant, how product is made, or the flow in kitchen, it can be detrimental to business if the changes haven’t been thoroughly tested.
Ferguson says the goal at every Cousins store is to serve the guest in four minutes, and that has not changed in Project Henry stores. What has changed, he says, is order accuracy and the guests’ perception of how long it takes to get their sandwich. The four minutes feels shorter to a guest who is busy selecting sandwich ingredients.
In addition to being supportive of Wisconsin guests, Cousins Subs continues to be supportive of Wisconsin suppliers. In 2012, the company introduced Wisconsin Cheese Curds to its menu of sides, which already included fries and chips. As Cousins Subs grows beyond the Dairy State’s borders, Specht says, she plans to continue to serve Wisconsin products, including cheeses, meats, and Milwaukee-made Sprecher root beer.
“We want to share the best of Wisconsin with people outside our state,” she says. “We want to perpetuate Wisconsin attitudes that we’re pretty Midwestern and pretty kind.”
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