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Jersey Mike’s may not be the world’s biggest or most famous submarine sandwich chain, but with 1,050 stores in 44 states, it’s in the midst of a growth spurt that ranks it among the country’s fastest-growing restaurant concepts.
That growth has been decades in the making for the 59-year-old Manasquan, New Jersey–based chain. After 40 years of owning Jersey Mike’s—ever since he was a 17-year-old high school senior—CEO Peter Cancro took time to reflect on the past 40 years and project forward over the next 40.
After 40 years of ownership, what do you think makes Jersey Mike’s different from other sub shops?
Ours is authentic. It’s a way of life. We sell fresh-sliced meats, fresh-sliced produce, and fresh-grilled cheesesteaks. Nobody is doing what we’re doing nationwide.
After 40 years, most things start to show wrinkles. What about Jersey Mike’s?
I’ve owned the chain since 1975, but we’re just coming out of the starting blocks. It’s our time.
What stalled growth for so long?
We were flat-lined by the 1991 recession. No one was loaning money. We hit the skid marks and got derailed for a while and stopped growing. We’re just starting to grow. It took a long time to get where we are now with 1,000 stores. I’ll be the first one to say that.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in 40 years of owning Jersey Mike’s?
You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time.
What’s your most humbling experience over four decades of ownership?
That was 1991, when we were growing like crazy and it just stopped. I had to lay off employees. I found myself alone, above a little store, and asked myself: What am I going to do now? We went back to work and one by one hired back the people we’d laid off.
How close did Jersey Mike’s come to going under?
We were under. I didn’t declare bankruptcy, but I was negative $2 million to $5 million. That’s when I buttoned the chinstrap. I visited every single owner. Growth was supposed to be exponential, but it just stopped.
So what changed?
It was a slow emergence. We came back one by one. This year we’ll open 200 stores. Next year we’ll open 250. Things are really starting to grow.
What’s your best-selling product?
When we first started, it was Italian subs or subs with ham. Now, with health concerns, the most popular protein is turkey.
What was your finest moment as owner of Jersey Mike’s?
I’m still waiting for it. We’re doing great, but we can always do better.
Where are you aching to open?
All over the planet. I look at it globally. I love Paris and Rome, personally, but our first international locations will probably be in Canada and the Caribbean Islands.
What gave you the audacity to buy a restaurant when you were just 17 years old?
Back in 1975, everyone was doing things early. I started working at Jersey Mike’s at 14. My brother had a job there before me. They put it up for sale for $125,000, which is like $1 million today. At that age, you’re not thinking. I’d been class president and had taken some bookkeeping classes. I was supposed to go to law school. But my football coach was a banker. I went to his house on a Sunday night at 9 p.m. and his bank agreed to finance the real estate.
What was it like to walk into work, as a 17-year-old, knowing you owned the place?
A natural high, I guess. But it wasn’t easy. I didn’t go to school for a week and a half while I was out trying to raise capital. Everyone was wondering where I was. They said I’d ruined my life. Folks thought, “Oh my gosh, he’s buying a sub shop.” It was a stigmatized profession.
What are the key changes you’ve made at Jersey Mike’s over the past 40 years?
The core business has not changed at all—except for more items. We still serve everything fresh and grill right out in front of customers.
What didn’t work?
Beyond subs, we tried to sell pizzas years back, and different pitas.
What did you learn from rival Subway’s series of problems over the past year?
Subway is a strong, strong brand and will come back big-time. They never put anyone down in their advertising. They talk about what they do. What happened to Subway is unfortunate, but they’ll be back.
How is technology changing Jersey Mike’s?
Tech costs a lot of money. We hired programmers and wrote our own point-of-sale software. I decided we would not be held hostage by technology.
How are nutritional concerns impacting the sub business?
For a while, carbs were bad and no one wanted bread. That’s no longer the case. Our subs are low-fat and high-protein. It’s the perfect meal. We are the healthy fast-casual restaurant and always have been. We serve fresh onion, lettuce, and tomato. We cook our own roast beef and turkeys in the store and slice them fresh. Nobody else is doing that.
What’s Jersey Mike’s mission?
I laugh at long mission statements. Ours is about giving—giving makes a difference in someone’s life. We deal with 140 charities.
Do you have a secret menu?
You can still get the Cancro Special. It’s what I used to eat all the time: Provolone cheese, fresh cooked roast beef, and pepperoni. We had to take it off the menu years ago because it wasn’t selling. But you can still order it.
How big can Jersey Mike’s get?
It’s not just about getting bigger. We want every store to do well. We don’t want to shut down stores. So it’s not about numbers. We want quality growth. We want to stay involved in our communities and in sharing with customers. We gave away $3.5 million in one day. Imagine what we could do with 10,000 stores. That’s what’s most gratifying: the opportunity to give. And we also make subs. That should be the title of your article: “And we also make subs.”
Any plans to sell Jersey Mike’s or go public?
We’re growing so well, we don’t need to go public. We like the idea of being able to give to local charities. You have restrictions on that when you’re a pubic company. As for selling, well, you get calls all the time from investment bankers.
Any plans to retire? Who would replace you?
I’ve been at it for 44 years—I worked at Jersey Mike’s four years before I bought it. I’ve got my sons Rob and Paul working with me, and my daughter Caroline, who is marketing manager. But I have no plans to retire. It stopped being work a long time ago. It’s love and passion. I do this to create great lives for a lot of people. As they say in football, we keep moving the chains. We’re happy to just keep them moving.
How do you envision Jersey Mike’s 40 years from now?
We see the push for health and clean labeling continuing. People want to know exactly what they’re consuming. It’s all about fresh. But you learn to move with the flow. You move with the ebbs and tides.
What advice would you give to a 17-year-old kid who told you he was interested in buying a sub shop?
I’d want to understand his background and learn what he knows about the business. I’d also encourage him to go to college. But most of all, I’d tell him that you need great people with you. You can’t do it alone.