Atlanta native Felicia Parks joined the army when she was just a teenager. After four years in the military—including a stint in Panama—she moved into government work.

Still, Parks had aspirations to become a business owner, so with the help of her two sons, she became a Jimmy John’s franchisee. The family now operates one store in southwest Atlanta and plans to open more in the same area. Through the restaurant, Parks has focused on hiring local youth while also reaching out to schools and organizations to prepare students for jobs. As a single parent, she understood the difficulties faced by under-employed young people—particularly those of color. In her two years as an operator, Parks has hired 75 employees and served as a mentor to many.

Parks shares how new franchisees can carry over skills from an earlier career, and why it’s so important to invest in young team members.

1. Hone your skills

I grew up in Atlanta, and after high school, I went into the Army and completed four years of military service. I came out, went to college, and got a degree in international business while raising my kids. Along the way, I worked with Veterans Affairs, helping save veterans’ homes. Then I moved over to Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to do the same thing in housing. I’d never had a franchise business, and this was the first one for my sons and me. I still work for HUD, and my two sons manage the business.

I did research on different franchises. One of the things I liked about Jimmy John’s was that it was one of the fastest growing franchises in the country. I liked the support they provided to their franchisees with a business-coach system. I liked the numbers; I liked the average sales per franchise. We decided to go up to Chicago and give it a look, and we liked what we saw. It’s not the most well-known brand in the Southeast, but the quality of the product I thought would really work once people got a chance to taste it.

When I started out, I was doing my own financials. The experience and the training I got from Mercer University really helped. The skills I learned in the military—such as being in charge of others when I was so young and working with different types of people—also helped me be a leader. I was 19 years old, stationed in the Panama Canal, and our job was to maintain the site-to-site communications. The military prepares you well, but it was stressful, especially for someone like me who is afraid of bugs. In Panama, the bugs are supersized.

2. Enlist your support team

My sons went through the seven-week apprenticeship program. Usually only the franchisee goes to the training but, luckily, I have two sons who are in this with me. There was a period of us learning how the business worked and how to make it work for us—what kind of employees to hire, how to manage labor, how to manage costs, what permits to file, everything that goes into starting a business.

Jimmy John’s really walked with me the whole way. They moved me from the initial start-up with finances to getting a loan to finding the right real estate. Each department held my hand through everything until the location was open. Once it was open, the business coach came in and other people from the store would help us. It helped to minimize a lot of challenges, but it takes hard work and commitment to do something like this.

I would advise people to talk to other franchisees who’ve been through the process. There were a few franchisees who gave me some advice. They gave me the ups and downs of things they had experienced, and that helped a lot. Take your time; don’t rush into it. Understand what’s going on. There’s a lot of permits to be pulled. There’s dealing with the local government, the taxes. Just make sure you have a clear understanding of what you need to do.

3. Inspire by example

I work with high schools. We sit down with kids, teach them how they need to prepare for an interview, and we’ve hired a couple. We’ve also hired kids from the Future Foundation, which is an after-school program that aims to help youth prepare for their futures. At Wolf Creek Library, they have a summer reading program that is not just for kids, but adults, too. When you read a certain amount of books, you can get a free sub at Jimmy John’s. I’ve given out about 150 coupons.

One of the compliments we get from people coming into our store, especially from some of our regular customers, is that they love the atmosphere. They love the energy of the kids. When someone walks into our door, we automatically greet them, and when they leave we say, “Have a good day.” You may see someone singing because they hear the tunes all day, and they might break out in a dance. It’s just a really good environment, good energy, and the kids like working there. My turnover is not as high as most of the stores in the area. I have a lot of people who have been with me for a while.

My two sons and I hear a lot of the kids saying they do want to open a business one day. This gives them the opportunity to see this is something they can do if they work hard and put the right things in place. The biggest thing for me is that the kids see they can do it. I’m just like them.

This story originally appeared in QSR’s July 2017 issue with the title “Serving More Than Sandwiches.”

Franchising, Story, Jimmy John's