Bill Specht, founder of Cousins Subs, announced his retirement as company CEO. Specht’s daughter, Christine Specht-Palmert will assume Specht’s responsibilities as president and CEO.
The idea of Cousins Subs first came to fruition after Specht moved from the East Coast to join his wife Sandy in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during the late 1960s, and they couldn’t find a sub shop in town that lived up to those back East. After working a few years in the lithography trade, Specht was still craving East Coast subs. When the company he worked for at the time closed, he approached his cousin Jim Sheppard about opening a sub shop and the rest is history. Specht and Sheppard opened the first Cousins Subs at the corner of 60th Street and Silver Spring Drive in Milwaukee.
“We were sitting around the dinner table one night thinking about what to call the shop, when Sandy said, ‘How about Cousins?’” Specht says. “It was perfect. It showed our focus on family, and it was easy to remember.”
Specht and Sheppard soon opened their second location on Farwell Avenue and Brady Street, which attracted a lot of business from guests partaking in activities at the lake. The success of this location propelled Specht and Sheppard to keep growing.
“Early on, we attracted a lot of former East Coasters,” Specht says. “They loved the fresh baked bread, just like back home. Many of these guests became friends who helped spread the word about the quality of our subs.”
The third location opened at 5th and Wisconsin Avenue, followed by Specht and Sheppard purchasing a bakery to perfect the bread that Cousins is known for today. Specht has always believed that quality bread is the cornerstone of what makes a better sub. Later, the fourth location at 51st Street and Howard Avenue was established; this location still operates as a Cousins Subs restaurant today.
“We had expansion plans from the very beginning,” Specht says. “We hoped to open 10–12 stores in the Milwaukee area. The reality that Cousins now operates more than 110 sub sandwich shops in three states is truly awe-inspiring.”
Cousins Subs currently operates statewide in Wisconsin and has stores in Minnesota and Arizona.
“Our brand was successful here in Milwaukee, and we had customers visiting from Fox Valley and Madison, pleading with us to expand to their markets,” Specht says. “We went for it. We felt we had a superior product and decided it was the perfect time to expand.”
Specht is proud of the success of Cousins’ franchising system. Many franchisees have been with the system for years starting their Cousins Subs journey as teenagers working in the restaurants to holding roles within Cousins corporate office.
“I take great pride in watching our franchisees succeed,” Specht says. “It takes good people for a business to flourish, and I attribute our success to the employees and franchisees that helped get us started. We have a great sandwich, and our franchisees know it. They’re proud of our product.”
Despite bold expansion plans, Cousins Subs remains rooted as a Wisconsin-based company. Cousins Subs has been a Summerfest vendor since the early days, and the company’s Make It Better Foundation offers grants, product donations and scholarships to high school students each year. In addition, the brand has partnered with many other prominent Wisconsin-based businesses and organizations including Johnsonville, Sprecher and the University of Wisconsin.
Since its inception, Cousins Subs has had a deep commitment to supporting the communities it serves. In 2013, the company established the Make It Better Foundation, which is dedicated to funding local organizations that address health and wellness, hunger, and youth education.
“I’ve always felt that giving back is the right thing to do,” Specht says. “We need to support the communities we call home. Many people support us by purchasing our subs, and it’s important to use our success to give back to local organizations.”
Specht has also been behind many of the menu evolutions over the years. As times changed, Specht knew it was necessary to make menu modifications that would please guests and keep them coming back. Even with all the menu changes that have taken place during the past 43 years, Specht finds himself returning to the same sandwich: the cheesesteak with hot pepper relish.
After 43 years in the business of sandwich making, Specht has decided it’s time to retire; although, he will remain active and involved in the business as chairman of the board.
Growing up within the Cousins Subs family has groomed Christine to be a strong, auspicious leader for the company. From early on, she visited the stores as a child and worked in them as a teenager. In 2001, she took the role as human resources manager at the Cousins Subs corporate office, working her way up within that department until 2008 when she became the president and COO. Today, she leads a dynamic management team and has created a vision for the next phase in Cousins’ 43-year history.
“Christine is undoubtedly going to achieve success in her role as CEO,” says Specht of his daughter. “Her thoughts in treating people well are parallel to mine, and when you’re in the people business like we are, that’s paramount. She also believes in the quality of our product as much as I do. It’s rewarding to see the next generation taking over Cousins Subs.”
While Specht’s daughter Christine establishes herself in her new role, Specht’s son Bill Specht Jr. is a longtime franchisee. Specht Jr. and his partners Nick and Kym Gierach own and operate Cousins Subs locations in Germantown, Brown Deer, and Milwaukee.
“I’m excited about the next phase of growth,” Specht-Palmert says. “I truly believe in this brand and am committed to continue Making It Better. We have a quality product, and I’m ecstatic for what the future holds.”
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