For Firehouse Subs franchisee Windy Griffin, her operation is more about building a community than building a business.

With no restaurant experience, she and her husband, Jerry, have grown the number of Firehouse units in their home market of Phoenix from one in 2011 to five locations as of this year. The duo also launched Firehouse’s H2O for Heroes program, which began as a local endeavor and is now a system-wide initiative that provides bottled water to first responders.

Griffin shares how it was Firehouse that first attracted her and Jerry to the restaurant industry, and how giving back has become integral to their business model.

1. Test the concept

It started for us in 2010. We ate at another quick-serve restaurant, but noticed that a Firehouse Subs had opened in the same parking lot nearby. We saw a lot of police cars over there, so we thought either something had happened or they’ve got really good food. We were so taken aback by how good the food was at Firehouse that it started our passion with the brand, so we ate at that new location about four nights each week for a month, trying all the different foods, seeing the customers that came in, and experiencing the energy of the crewmembers and managers. We weren’t looking to operate a restaurant, but we just fell in love with it.

We didn’t have restaurant background. Jerry ran an automotive bodyshop; you think you work a lot when you’re doing that, but it was a Monday through Friday, 8-to-5 job with an hour lunch break. I had my own business and came from the medical industry prior to that, so time-commitment-wise it was not much of a change—but it is a lot of work. I don’t think somebody going into restaurant franchising considers how much time they are going to be working. It’s not an 8-to-5 job, it is an 8-in-the-morning-until-11-at-night, seven-days-a-week kind of job.

2. Be a willing student

Since neither myself nor my husband had any restaurant experience, we were kind of a blank slate for Firehouse. They didn’t have to change the way we thought about prep work, staffing, or running it, because we didn’t have that experience from other concepts.

Franchisees need to realize that a franchisor-franchisee relationship is like a marriage. We are married to Firehouse, and it is both parties’ responsibility to make sure we’re given everything needed to succeed. They give you the training materials, so you know the best practices that are already in place. There are reasons we prep a certain way or make a sandwich with a particular process. They’ve worked through that; they’ve already made mistakes and figured out what works best.

One thing we have modified is training. Our team members watch videos on their first day, and we have them work as an extra for about a solid week’s worth of shifts so they have that hands-on training. They’ll watch somebody during the first part of their shift, and during the second part of their shift they’ll attempt that position.

Firehouse has a model with an area representative, and since we didn’t come in with restaurant experience, it was huge for us. The representative was in our restaurant while we were under construction, helping us assemble shelves, stock napkin dispensers. You don’t hear a lot of other franchisees say their corporate representative helped them do that.

3. Inspire a movement

It gets so hot here in Arizona. In months like July and August, our food banks and fire departments run out of bottled water to hand out to people who are in need. If we could get customers to bring in a case of water, I’d be happy to give them a sub in return, and then we could build these water supplies back up for fire departments.

The first year of H2O for Heroes was kind of small. The next year we had more restaurants open in the valley, and the customers who participated in the first year were asking us in the summer if we were going to do our bottled-water drive again. The response from our local fire departments was amazing that first year, so we decided to do it again for the second year. I want to be a part of the community, so the bottled-water drive really has helped us become involved and ingrained in our community and helped our guests. It’s our sixth year doing the drive, and it’s been nationwide for two years. This summer, our most recent drive brought in more than 35,000 cases, and 1,090 restaurants participated.

In addition to H2O for Heroes, we have fundraising days for schools, church groups, and different organizations. Each restaurant will schedule a day when they give back a percentage of sales to one of those groups. It’s an easy way for them to fundraise, and they have fun at the same time. A lot of high schools are in lower-income areas, and they don’t have the budget to pay for new football or cheerleading uniforms, so we can do little things to help them pay for this and for trips to competitions and equipment.

We are not just in the business of selling subs. We are in the business of building community relationships with our local fire department and police department, the local Boys & Girls Club, the elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools, the church groups—that’s why we’re here. If a franchisee comes into the system and is only concerned about what they’re doing for themselves, that’s the wrong reason to be in this business.

Charitable Giving, Franchising, Story, Firehouse Subs