The Untold Truth Of Jersey Mike's

In a world totally dominated by a few big names, sometimes it's nice to root for the underdog. These days, it seems like every street corner is littered with a McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, Subway, and all your other megacorp food chains. But that doesn't mean you have to be forced through the doors of the branch of a multibillion dollar company just to find great fast food that's adored nationwide.

Take Jersey Mike's, for example. Okay, so it's not exactly a mom-and-pop independent corner store, but compared to some of the bigger names in casual dining it might as well be a hot dog cart. This New Jersey-based chain has been making subs for decades now, but despite enjoying tremendous growth in the last few years, still remains a grounded and ultimately likable brand. From their humble beginnings to their charity work and even an unfortunate controversy, here's the untold truth of Jersey Mike's.

Humble beginnings

Jersey Mike's first began in 1956 — for comparison, that's only two years after Burger King was founded and almost a decade before Subway opened. Just a single store (called Mike's Subs), back then the restaurant was a mom-and-pop business, set up in order to sell a relatively new invention in American culture: the submarine sandwich

Fast forward to 1971, when Peter Cancro joined the Mike's Subs team at just 14 years of age. He thrived in the sub business, and a few years later in 1975, when he heard the owners discussing the sale of the business, he approached his football coach and asked for a loan of $150,000 to help him buy the shop. Surprisingly, his coach agreed, making the 17-year-old kid a business owner. 

In an interview with QSR, Cancro was asked what it felt like to walk to work at 17 knowing he owned the joint. "A natural high, I guess," he replied. "But it wasn't easy. I didn't go to school for a week and a half while I was out trying to raise capital. Everyone was wondering where I was. They said I'd ruined my life. Folks thought, 'Oh my gosh, he's buying a sub shop.' It was a stigmatized profession." 

It was Cancro and his wife, Linda, who opened the company's next few outlets, steadily building a loyal customer base and seeking to perfect the Jersey Mike's customer experience.

The edge of bankruptcy

In 1987, Cancro decided to begin franchising Jersey Mike's. This, however, was a decision which almost destroyed the company. Cancro had put "every dime" into growing Jersey Mike's, and eventually set up about 35 stores up and down the Jersey Shore. In the early '90s, however, a recession hit the United States. Because all of the company's money had been put into growth, there was nothing left in the bank to save it from hard times. Six people in the HQ were laid off and Cancro was forced to visit each franchisee and make sure things were still running smoothly. At the time, it was also impossible to buy any new stores. "We were under," Cancro told QSR. "I didn't declare bankruptcy, but I was negative $2 million to $5 million. That's when I buttoned the chinstrap. I visited every single owner. Growth was supposed to be exponential, but it just stopped."

Cancro had to run the company without the staff he had let go, eventually having to work more than 100 hours every week. Because there was no money for TV advertising, he was forced to take to local radio to get the word out about the business, and filled the gaps with door-to-door marketing and mail campaigns. Luckily, things eventually turned around — and within three years of the recession, Cancro had managed to hire back all the staff he had fired.

Making money

Despite experiencing a little blip at the start of the '90s (didn't we all?), Jersey Mike's has since gone on to enjoy an incredible level of success. Today, the company does $1 billion in annual sales and has 1,400 outlets in 45 states. Not only that, but the chain had, as of 2018, won the award for the fastest growing franchise concept in America for four years in a row. Over the next five years, Cancro hopes to double that revenue to $2 billion each year from 3,000 locations.

According to Cancro himself — who has been CEO now for over four decades — there are a few key tricks to building such a successful business. It basically comes down to choosing the right franchisees, communicating with staff and colleagues, getting involved (we'll come to that) and, perhaps simplest of all, showing up every day. Almost makes it look easy, doesn't he?

Getting his hands dirty

One of the things which separates Cancro's business style from that of his fast food CEO colleagues is that he genuinely seems to relish getting his hands dirty. While he was providing his key lessons on managing a business to the Jersey Mike's blog, he was in the midst of touring the country, traveling from Portland to Phoenix to San Diego to visit his stores. According to Cancro himself, when he walks into a store, "I say nothing. "I walk in wearing a white oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up and I start cleaning the grill. I get right in there with them."

He then joins the production line, helps make sandwiches and routinely asks his colleagues, many of whom are teenagers, how he's doing. Cancro claims it "levels the playing field and resonates." "When I was 14-years-old," he said, "it felt like a small family nucleus. That's what I want for our store teams today."

The secret menu

Like many of today's more popular chains, Jersey Mike's has its own secret menu. In a 2018 Reddit post, an ex-employee of the chain detailed some of the restaurant's secret menu items. One of these is the "99," a Philly cheesesteak with onions, peppers, mushrooms and jalapeño, with four slices of cheese (either American or pepper jack) with a chipotle mayo sauce.

Another more rare item is the Chicka-Fila-Roni: a chicken Philly with grilled pepperoni, grilled onions, chipotle mayo, marinara and/or ranch. The Redditor says this sub is so good, they "can't understand why it's not a thing." It can be now...

If you're after something a little more low-carb, however, there's always the Sub in a Tub. It's not exactly a secret, but it's not a well-known menu item either. The Sub in a Tub is essentially the inner workings of a sub but without any of the bread. And don't kid yourself here — you're not really going to Jersey Mike's for the bread, are you?

Jersey J-Lo's

It's clear that Jersey Mike's is willing to try a whole range of things to get their sandwiches selling, but none of their efforts so far are likely to have been as good for the company as the time they showed up in a Jennifer Lopez video. In 2018, J-Lo released "Dinero", a collaboration with Cardi B featuring DJ Khaled. In amongst all the dance sequences and scenes depicting Lopez barbecuing steaks in lingerie (that's the music biz, for you) is a shot in which the singer sits at the bottom of a staircase eating a meal from Jersey Mike's.

The company's social media accounts were quick to point out their cameo in "Dinero," and considering it's been viewed over 90 million times (as of March 2019), it's hard to imagine they were too unhappy at having their products show up during the video. You can't buy exposure like that.

The whole pregnancy thing

Not everything over at Jersey Mike's is sunshine and roses, of course, and the nature of owning a franchise business means — inevitably — you're going to end up courting some controversy. And that's exactly what happened in August 2018, when an employee of the company in Marysville, Washington, was fired over their maternity leave. According to WSB-TV, the pregnant worker realized one day she hadn't been assigned shifts and, after asking her manager about it, received a text telling her she'd been fired. The text read: "It's not a good time to have somebody who is leaving for maternity leave in several months anyways."

Under Washington state law, it's considered an "unfair practice" for an employer to terminate a woman's employment because of pregnancy or childbirth. After the incident received considerable media attention, the owner of that store offered her job back, but the worker ultimately declined. The manager was responsible for the firing also resigned, and did not offer comment when contacted by the press.

Keeping fresh

As you might expect — and hope — from a sub sandwich store, freshness is the "name of the game" at Jersey Mike's. The chain takes special pride in preparing all its vegetables by hand every day "for the highest level of freshness and flavor." According to Greg Potter, one of the company's franchisees, freshness is what makes Jersey Mike's superior to other subs. "We bake our bread fresh daily," he said on the company's blog. "We shred our lettuce and cut our onions and tomatoes daily. There's nothing leftover that you will have the next day on your sub. It's all fresh that morning. The quality of the meat is USDA grade A. We do our own in-house roast beef. It's kind of a restaurant-type sub shop."

This emphasis on freshness and quality seems to have paid off. In 2013, the chain was honored with the Restaurant Chain Marketer of the Year award for "leading promotions on the Certified Angus Beef brand" on its menus, social media, and advertising campaigns. Indeed, according to Brian Todd, President and CEO of the Food Institute, Jersey Mike's ability to play to "shifting tastes" towards fresh ingredients and authentic, local food has given the chain a marked advantage over Subway and McDonald's.

Healthy aspirations

Although the word "fast" in "fast food" is practically synonymous with the word "unhealthy," it might prove some relief to find that much of Jersey Mike's food is actually pretty good for you — as far as casual dining goes, at least. In 2014, ranked the healthiest chain restaurants in the USA, and Jersey Mike's tied seventh with In-N-Out Burger, beating out Panda Express and El Pollo Loco. Unfortunately, it wasn't the top sub chain on the list, with Au Bon Pain tied for first and Subway coming in third. But hey, you don't see any mention of the usual suspects like McDonald's or Burger King in the top 10, so take that for what it's worth.

Certain items on the Jersey Mike's menu, however, are anything but healthy. In particular, a 2016 survey found that the restaurant's Buffalo chicken cheesesteak was given the third-worst mark among sandwich chain items, earning a D-minus score. That chicken cheesesteak was also found to contain a staggering 1,770 calories and 79.5 grams of fat. In one sandwich. Not one to be proud of, that.

Mike's Way

Being a store which specializes in sub sandwiches, there's quite the scope for customization at Jersey Mike's — but there's one way of making a sandwich which has become the central focus for the company's marketing. Mike's Way means making a sandwich with onions, lettuce, tomatoes, spices, and a blend of olive oil and red wine vinegar that the restaurant calls "The Juice." The main filling, however, is up to the customer — whether that's roast beef, turkey, tuna, cheese steak, or anything else. According to Matt Chmiel, the company's marketing manager, a sub made "Mike's Way" is Jersey Mike's most popular product, and is what the store has been famous for ever since its foundation.

Obviously, it's only a recommendation, and the store also offers a whole smorgasbord of different sandwiches, featuring ingredients as wide-ranging as provolone, bell peppers, prosciuttini, smoked bacon, salami, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing, mushrooms, blue cheese dressing and chipotle mayo. Just remember, Mike's Way probably became famous for a reason.

Vetting the newbies

Although becoming a franchisee for a company that's experiencing as much growth and success as Jersey Mike's would be a dream come true for many budding entrepreneurs, it's not a role easily given out. Every franchisee is required to go through a week of training in New Jersey, during which time they meet Cancro, the company's president Hoyt Jones and the rest of the executive team. This training is primarily aimed at allowing new store owners to get to know the Jersey Mike's corporate culture.

But it's all worth it. In exchange for their commitment to the company, franchisees are offered real estate assistance, architects, contractors, and more from Jersey Mike's headquarters, essentially taking many of the stresses away from newcomer owners. "We try to take as much off the plate of the franchisee so that the only thing they have to worry about is running the store," Jones told the Franchise Times. "Learn how to make the best sub, push speed of service, quality of service, talk to the customer."

The company also employs area directors, who are themselves owner-operators of Jersey Mike's stores, to act as a liaison between corporate and the franchisees. "It's like you're knighted — it's a big deal," Jones said. "We like the model, and I think it just gives us credibility. The area directors and their team are the ones that are there every day."

The culture of giving

Jersey Mike's isn't just well-known for its subs, however — or even its success. The company also puts a lot of emphasis on its charitable side, which it describes as a "culture of giving." Since 2010, Jersey Mike's has raised over $34 million, not for "the back pats, or the tax breaks," as they say, but simply "to give," and regularly ask their customers to donate to local charities throughout the month of March.

On the last Wednesday of every March, the company also hosts a "Day of Giving," whereupon the company donates 100 percent of its revenue (usually around $5-7 million) to charity. According to Cancro, Jersey Mike's has done this since 1975, and considering 2019 saw the company generate over $6 million in sales on its Day of Giving (all of which went to charity), it's not hard to imagine the final tally of their charitable donations is astronomical. For years now, what's described as "cause-related marketing" has been a central aspect of the company's strategy for promoting growth. Evidently, it's working.

Letting the dogs out

But that's not the end of Jersey Mike's work with charity. The company has also worked with veterans' charities in the past. In 2017, for example, Jersey Mike's provided funding and support to K9s for Warriors, a charity which provides service dogs to military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and military sexual trauma. One vet who benefited from the program was Richard Baca, who suffers from PTSD and was assigned a service dog named Jersey (naturally). Baca completed a three-week course with K9s for Warriors, during which he received 120 hours of instruction on reintegration into society.

Speaking to Jersey Mike's, Baca explained, "I learned his name was Jersey because Jersey Mike's Subs donated the money for him. I am eternally grateful — Jersey has given me hope and a whole new outlook on life and my future."

As of 2017, K9s for Warriors had helped 312 veterans find a service dog to help them cope with post-combat life. And some of their work, it seems, has been made possible by Jersey Mike's.

Hitting home runs in partnerships

Everyone knows that hitting a ball with a bat and running around a field is hungry work (that's what baseball is, right?), so the New York Yankees probably found themselves jumping for joy when Jersey Mike's was named the team's "Official Sub Sandwich Shop" in 2015. As part of the team-up, the Yankees agreed to promote Jersey Mike's via in-stadium LED signs and game tickets the company can use for in-store and radio sweepstakes. The partnership probably isn't a huge surprise, considering Peter Cancro has long been a sports fan (he gave up a football scholarship to buy that first store) and that two professional athletes (former Yankees star Morgan Ensberg and former NFL player Angelo Crowell) own their own Jersey Mike's franchises.

It's not just physical sports which the company has invested in, however. In 2018, they also announced they'd be sponsoring the Summer Split of the North American League of Legends Championship Series (an e-sports league) — in the hope the chain could make their mark on a younger (and increasingly hard-to-reach) demographic.