Cousins Subs has good reason to celebrate. The Wisconsin-based company recently marked its 47th anniversary with a new wave of growth that will bring the concept into new markets across the U.S.

Cousins’ refreshed expansion is the result of a long-term strategy implemented by chief executive officer Christine Specht, who kickstarted a reorganization of the company in 2013. After joining Cousins as president in 2008, Specht, who is the daughter of Bill Specht, one of the two founders of Cousins, decided to evaluate where the company was after four decades in business. 

“For me, it made sense to pause for a while and really right the ship for Cousins,” Specht says. “And lay out a plan for how we want to be for the next 10 years in terms of products that we’re serving, our cuisine philosophy, the way our environments look, and the guest experience is paramount.”

Instead of ramping up growth in new markets, Specht decided the company was better off focusing on its Wisconsin roots. 

“We decided to pause new market growth to really look at the brand and look at our environment,” she says. “We needed to think about where are we as a brand and where do we need to be, in order to spark growth once again.”

[float_image image=”” width=”50″ link=”” caption=”Cousins’ chief executive officer Christine Specht kickstarted a reorganization of the company in 2013.” alt=”” align=”right” /]

Cousins couldn’t continue growing for the sake of growing, Specht says. It wasn’t an easy call, Specht admits, but without sustainable and smart expansion, the company would outgrow its operational strengths. She also wanted to build partnerships with franchisees dedicated to the brand.

After six years of extensively rebranding and remodeling, Cousins is ready to bring its subs to new markets. The refreshed locations promote the history of the legacy chain while educating customers about the fresh direction.

“My goal for this environment was to coin the Milwaukee sub shop,” Specht says. “It has an essence of where we started and guests will understand a little bit more about who we are, more than just the sub that they’re eating.”

The biggest part of the expansion will take place in Chicago, where Cousins had a presence before exiting in 2013.

The chain inked a deal last summer with the OM Group to open 40 stores by 2025 in the area. The experience of Amit and Kalpesh Patel of OM Group attracted, Specht says. 

“It makes sense to us to have continuous growth,” Specht says. “But we recognize [Chicago] is a very large market, densely populated, with a lot of competition at the same time. So going there wasn’t just going to be an afterthought. We really wanted to think about who we might want to partner with to go into the Chicago market. We found the OM group and the two brothers have had the experience in the Chicagoland region with other businesses that they currently operate. So we feel really good about who we’re partnering with.”

So far, two new Cousins locations have opened in the Windy City. Specht believes they are on track to open five to seven new restaurants by the end of 2019. In order to saturate the market and gain brand awareness quickly, Cousins will continue to open at this rate.

“It’s not just open up one, wait a year, and then open up another one because you just don’t get the traction that you need to,” Specht says. “So we’re very optimistic, and we’ll see where it goes.”

Specht plans on growing the 100-unit chain throughout the Midwest, but doesn’t have a specific number of units in mind. Over the next few years, she sees Cousins breaking into markets across Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky. Specht will rely on local research and building relationships with potential franchisees to extend Cousins’ reach. 

[float_image image=”” width=”50″ link=”” caption=”Specht plans on growing the 100-unit chain throughout the Midwest, but doesn’t have a specific number of units in mind.” alt=”” align=”left” /]

A Delivery-Only Restaurant Concept

Another new addition to the Cousins’ footprint is the first delivery-only restaurant concept, which opened June 20. Using a commissary kitchen, the restaurant will be able to fulfill online orders in the downtown Milwaukee area. Unlike other fast casuals working with ghost kitchen companies, Cousins decided to do this on its own.

The strategy, Specht says, is to keep costs down and react to changing dining preference.

“We know the trend for delivery and guests. A lack of desire to maybe go out for a meal is changing,” Specht says. “So we are right in step with that.”

In downtown Milwaukee, rents are rising and a traditional location might be busy during the lunch rush, but fail to attract diners in the evening. And delivery customers tend to over-index during dinner. Specht believes this model could mend the gap. 

“This delivery area that we have is just right for the opportunity for us to really again meet guests expectations,” she says. “Which is to deliver great food to them for and in a way that doesn’t require us to have a typical store presence in downtown Milwaukee where rents might be higher or traffic might be challenging.”

Because the delivery-only location is still in its infancy, there are no concrete plans to open any more in the near future. Specht sees the location as a place to experiment and figure out the proper processes in order to scale. She points out that it might not work in every market, but is certainly attractive for franchisees in busier areas. 

“We know the trend of delivery is not is not slowing down it’s going the other way,” Specht says. “And we want to make sure that we’re relevant so we stay a part of that trend.”

Unlike Cousins’ other locations where delivery is facilitated through DoorDash, the brand’s corporate team will carry out orders here. 

Cousins’ partnership with DoorDash began about a year ago and most locations have adopted it. This partnership aligns with the need for Cousins to have its foot in the delivery game, Specht says.

“We don’t want to create any barriers for people to purchase and consume Cousins Subs,” she adds. “This is an avenue that is important for guests, we hear that. So we want to make that available to them.”

Specht also thinks customers are becoming more comfortable with a third-party vendor delivering their food. As long as the guests’ expectations for delivery continue to be met, Specht doesn’t see the need to take delivery completely in house.

Customer Experience, Design, Fast Casual, Franchising, Menu Innovations, Ordering, Restaurant Operations, Sandwiches, Story, Cousins Subs