Firehouse Subs CEO Don Fox noticed a somewhat troubling trend. With guest frequency down a bit, the 1,060-unit chain was sliding into a category it didn’t want to live in.
“There were two issues that we wanted to tackle,” Fox says. “One was, for some of our consumers, they were looking at Firehouse as a little bit more of a special occasion [restaurant]. They just weren’t coming as frequently as we would like. To put it one way, perhaps they viewed us as being a little bit indulgent.”
Since the Jacksonville, Florida-based brand’s founding in 1994, the menu has featured medium subs with 4-ounce portions of protein and the half-pound large offerings. Then Firehouse created the lower-calorie Hearty & Flavorful line, which were under-500 calorie options with less bread, different sauces, and new flavors. They were also similarly priced to the regular menu items, however. And this where the second issue arose, Fox says.
Firehouse introduced its Small Subs lineup across all locations this week, a move that addressed several factors. The subs are the same as the larger ones, just 3.5—4 inches long with 2-ounce portions and a price point that starts at $3.99.
“It just seemed like a simple, logical idea to create a smaller version of all the flavor profiles that everybody loves,” Fox says. “On those the calorie count is even lower than the Hearty & Flavorful line of subs but the flavor profiles are exactly the same as everybody loves. That was one reason for bringing it out. It’s been very successful on the initial rollout and in the test that we did earlier.”
In fact, Fox says, the smaller subs are selling twice as fast as the Hearty & Flavorful options at the outset, and that’s before a real advertising push has even begun. That campaign is set to begin on the local level Monday.
With a per person check average of around $10, Firehouse is firmly in the fast casual category, Fox says. But the small subs can bring that number down to below $8, with tax, and in effect price guests in instead of the alternative.
“That’s opened us up for some more occasions with some of our customers,” he says.
Fox says the smaller subs will draw in younger diners and women, as well as male customers who simply don’t want to order a giant sandwich.
“Maybe you haven’t been as active on a particular day. Maybe you just don’t have the same appetite. Or maybe it opens us up for some snack period usage. That 2 to 5 period in the afternoon,” he says. “And it gives us a whole array of options that we really didn’t have before.”
Firehouse also rolled out a chopped salad and two soups, chicken noodle and broccoli cheese, at around 50 percent of the system’s units. The optional items, which can be added on for an upcharge to meals, could go nationwide if the results pan out. Additional flavors might join the lineup if that happens, Fox says.
Fox adds that a small sub and soup combo will help Firehouse appeal to yet another level of consumer. Firehouse’s combos include any beverage size as well, whether 22, 32, or 44 ounces.
Firehouse’s small subs lineup, Fox says, is another sign that the brand is mindful of consumer’s changing preference when it comes to better-for-you food in limited service.
“I think these days what’s interesting is that every consumer defines, let’s call it the health benefit, differently. For some it is about calories. For some it might be about fat content. For many increasingly it’s just about the actual quality or wholesomeness of the ingredients. That’s one area that we’ve always had a strong position in,” he says. “… We’ve always been in a position of strength and the consumer recognizes it. Not so much by us talking about it by the virtue of the experience. It’s fair to say that the menu needs to be under some form of constant evolution. The consumer is changing faster than ever before.”