When they decided to enter the restaurant game, former firefighters Robin and Chris Sorensen knew they wanted to honor their firefighting brethren. The brothers were less sure of how to do so in a unique way.

“As we were putting it all together conceptually, we saw an article in the paper about a local mom-and-pop store that had painted brick outside on the lower half of the building, and we thought it would be a great idea to do that on our interior and give it a real firehouse sort of feel,” Chris Sorensen says.

The Sorensens partnered with artist Joe “Art Brush” Puskas, a local Florida painter who did everything from art deco–style house painting to designing T-shirts to crafting intricate murals. For the first Firehouse Subs location in Jacksonville, Florida, Puskas painted a fire truck coming out of a station with a 3D-like effect. The Sorensen brothers were so impressed that they called on Puskas again when the second store opened, and then the third. Fast-forward 21 years, and Puskas has painted nearly 1,000 murals, which are hung on the walls in restaurants in 43 states across the country. Each mural is different and highlights some aspect of the local fire department.

“Everyone is very passionate about what they want included,” Puskas says. “I try to involve the fire department, as well, and show any historic fire event. It’s a big mishmash of stuff.” Firehouse Subs franchisees send Puskas photos of details that lend local flavor, such as landmarks, school mascots, and, most importantly, the local fire department.

Massachusetts-based marketing consultant and founder of Selfishgiving.com Joe Waters says the murals give Firehouse Subs a competitive edge and help them stand out in communities with a sizable sandwich market.

“There are all these generic chains that have the same type of qualities, but this is a way to show the community that this is unique for them and doesn’t look and feel the same as every other sub shop,” he says. “This helps make a positive, emotional connection and keeps customers coming back.”

A recent mural Puskas painted for a new Firehouse Subs in Conway, South Carolina, depicts the local department’s fire truck and several firefighters next to the franchisee, Bob Lepore, who was a first responder at Ground Zero during the September 11 attacks. The mural also shows local Coastal Carolina University’s mascot, Chauncey the Chanticleer, decked out in firefighting gear.

Puskas says the primary value of the murals is their ability to connect the franchisee to the customer through local flavor.

“These murals bring attention to the firefighters and departments that do so much for the community,” Sorensen says. “I was a fireman for 15 years, and pre-9/11, people didn’t talk much about us or what we do. My brother and I feel this is a great way to honor all the heroic men and women who do so much.”

Beyond commemorating local heroes, the murals create a foundation for defining a sense of place, integrate the visions of the community and business leaders, and ultimately attract new visitors, Sorensen adds.

Tim Bush, deputy fire chief of the Maple Grove Fire Department in Maple Grove, Minnesota, says the mural at the local Firehouse Subs was the talk of the station when it first went up and the firefighters—90 percent of whom are volunteers—felt honored to be represented.

“The first time I walked in, I remember how nice it was to see our duty crew truck on the wall,” Bush says. “It was a pretty significant piece of wall art, and it was neat to be featured in this way.”

The Maple Grove mural depicts Independence Day with fireworks reflecting off a lake and a fire truck adjacent to the festivities. Bush says he and the department feel a sense of pride when walking in and seeing it so prominently displayed.

Sorensen echoes this sentiment, noting that the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive throughout the brand’s 21-year history. Beyond highlighting each hometown, the artwork and restaurant design harken back to firefighter values.

“The murals create an atmosphere where guests feel like they’re experiencing firefighter culture—surrounded by hearty, hot food and the camaraderie of family and friends,” Sorensen says.

Some murals also incorporate police cars or other aspects of public safety. It’s all about what the franchisee wants and how it can best pay tribute to local heroes.

Murals are mandatory at each Firehouse Subs location. Originally, Puskas painted the murals at the restaurants while blasting Led Zeppelin over a boom box. Because of the brand’s rapid growth, he now creates each 6-by-12-foot mural in a private studio. The mural is then shipped to the franchisee.

Each piece takes up to 70 hours to complete and Puskas can work on up to five at a time, but he also has help from six full-time assistants.

The Sorensen brothers have been approached through the years by other artists and marketing companies with offers to do cheaper, generic murals. But Sorensen says that he would not consider anyone but Puskas—who he says is like a brother—creating the art.

For operators who would like to incorporate unique artwork within their concepts, Sorensen advises them to first identify their potential audience and what appeals to them, and then seek out artists. He adds that alternative venues like restaurants are increasingly attractive for artists who might otherwise not have much exposure.

“I think it’s a win-win all the way around—for the fire department, city, and our franchisees,” Sorensen says.

Customer Experience, Fast Casual, Restaurant Operations, Sandwiches, Story, Firehouse Subs