There’s a popular idiom in the restaurant industry, particularly used in relation to the larger chains: “It’s like turning around a cruise ship.”
Of course, few know what it’s really like to turn a cruise ship around. But the point stands that changing course for a large entity is easier said than done. And in the restaurant industry, the bigger the system, the more complicated it becomes to implement significant brand evolution.
Cousins Subs has been turning its cruise ship around for about six years. The 47-year-old sandwich chain has undergone a major facelift that started in 2013—a facelift that, it hopes, will be easier to conduct now rather than later, as the brand aims to expand beyond its 100 or so locations, most of which are located in its home state of Wisconsin.
Justin McCoy has been a key part of the evolution. McCoy started at Cousins 14 years as an entry-level employee, and today, as vice president of marketing, is part of the leadership team responsible for reimagining the Cousins experience. Along with CEO Christine Specht—daughter of Cousins cofounder Bill Spect—McCoy and the rest of the corporate team have developed significant changes to the branding, the back of the house, and the customer experience. The changes have rolled out throughout system, which is mostly franchised.
“This leadership team has now been together for six-plus years. We've earned that trust with our system,” McCoy said in a conversation for QSR’s “Fast Forward” podcast, recorded during the NRA Show in May. “So when we come out with something new or cutting edge, [franchisees] know that we have the best interests of the system at heart and that we're looking for the right fit for us as a brand.”
While some of the changes have been carefully planned and implemented, others have been more seat-of-the-pants. The industry’s digital and off-premises evolutions in particular have forced Cousins to make quick decisions, McCoy said.
“I didn't come into this year knowing for sure if we would launch third-party delivery. I didn't think we’d get to kiosks this year, and our loyalty program was kind of stalled,” McCoy said. “Now we're probably 120 days out from loyalty. We have a kiosk pilot about to go, and we have third-party delivery in 80 percent of our system. And none of that was part of a marketing plan. You have to be fluid in what you're doing.”
The expansion beyond Wisconsin borders has already begun. Cousins has opened multiple locations in Illinois, including a shop in downtown Chicago earlier this year.
For more from McCoy on Cousins’ evolution, listen to the most recent episode of “Fast Forward” by streaming above or clicking here.