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Fast, Fresh & Friendly: Jimmy John Liautaud Rewrites Recipe for Success

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Almost 40 years ago near Eastern Illinois University, Jimmy John Liautaud popped up a sub shop with a unique vision: inexpensive sandwiches made with fresh-baked breads and exceptional meats and cheese, open late with the fastest delivery and friendliest service. Today, Liautaud’s famed Jimmy John’s is one of the fastest growing chains in the country with more than 2,800 locations in 43 states. High standards and a winning franchising strategy are credited for the founder’s success, who in 2018 was included on the Forbes list of the world's wealthiest people with an estimated net worth of nearly $2 billion. While “freaky fast” is used to describe the chain’s unparalleled speed of service and delivery, “slow and steady” is the account of Liautaud’s decades of unbeatable work ethic and determination. His 24/7/365 grind molded the Jimmy John’s empire into a well-oiled machine, and the latest valuation for the sandwich shop – to the tune of ~$3 billion – is credit to Liautaud’s dedication. In 2019, Jimmy John's was acquired by Inspire Brands, a multi-brand restaurant company whose current portfolio includes more than 11,200 beloved chain locations worldwide, and Liautaud’s influence on the food and beverage industry will leave a lasting mark and define a winning style of franchising for decades to come. Jimmy John Liautaud grew a modest $25,000 loan into a nationally recognized brand, and along the way, continues to reward those who believed in his vision while committing to service and philanthropy for causes in his communities. 

After a mediocre run in grade school, Liautaud faced a choice from his father: enlist in the army or build a successful business – he had one year to turn a profit and prove his path. With a $25,000 loan from his dad, Jimmy John’s grew out of the necessity for inexpensive equipment and overhead, starting in 1983 in a converted garage with a refrigerator, a meat slicer and a cash register. Close proximity to the university in Charleston, Illinois informed Liautaud’s plans for the shop: serve students throughout the day and catch the bar crowd late-night, make personal connections with regular customers, keep the prices low and the selections minimal, and offer “freaky fast” service and delivery. Liautaud’s admitted obsessive work schedule paid off: the first year yielded a $40,000 profit, two years later – a second location in Macomb, and the year after that – the third location in Champaign, Illinois. 

Liautaud oversaw ten restaurants in the first ten years, then decided to franchise the budding business. By 2002, Jimmy John’s had 160 locations, but this year proved to be a determining test for the founder: of these 160, nearly half were going under. Liautaud forewent new franchise opportunities for the year and enlisted the help of Jimmy John’s President James North, visiting each of the struggling 70 restaurants to reset expectations, standardize practices, retrain staff and coach management. This decision is to get “back to basics” in these restaurants is now partially credited for the current success of the brand and will be studied for years to come at as a winning franchising model for businesses across the world. Liautaud’s hands-on restructuring of these 70 locations with updated regulations turned around 90% of these businesses, with only seven locations ending in closure. Jimmy John’s franchise locations took these standards to build new stores moving forward, leading to the current total of nearly 3,000 locations and a huge acquisition with Inspire Brands. 

In addition to fresh food and fast, friendly service, Jimmy John’s stakes their reputation on a number of promises in their mission statement – practices Jimmy John Liautaud put into place with the first store in 1983. Sustainability initiatives include packaging, transportation and material efficiencies; and ingredients for Jimmy John’s locations are sourced from sustainable partners committed to eco-friendly causes, many of whom are included in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. Dedication to green practices ranges from recycling to sustainable farming, and the Jimmy John’s mission sets out to rely on local small businesses for their thousands of locations across the country, employing local plumbers, electricians, carpenters, contractors, repair companies, sign makers and tile installers – creating an affiliate system of employment that exceeds 50,000 jobs, or about 210 new jobs each week. 

Liautaud is responsible for the commitment to people, communities, suppliers and sustainability practices that make Jimmy John’s great. Outside of the business, Liautaud, along with his wife Leslie, shares this passion for contribution within their communities. A select few notable contributions include: Liautaud’s high school alma mater, Elgin Academy, on the condition that his donation construct a new building bearing the name of his Elgin Academy mentor, James Lyons; construction of the Champaign County YMCA; donation to Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, NH, where the couple’s three children are graduates, contributing to the new “Toad Hall” student residence; contributions to Folds of Honor, who awards educational scholarships to families of fallen and disabled service members; donations to Camp Southern Ground, a non-profit summer camp that also uses lodging to support military veterans and their families; gifts to the Horatio Alger Association to support scholarships for underprivileged students; and donations to Chicago’s Youth Guidance Becoming a Man program, a program that educates and mentors young men. These philanthropic causes are informed by the Liautaud’s family life, history, educational initiatives and needs around their communities.    

While Jimmy John Liautaud no longer runs the day-to-day operations in his stores, the foundations he placed in the first 36 years of business continue to push the brand forward, empowering their employees and supporting their communities. After Inspire Brands took the reins, Jimmy John’s founder moved to bigger picture as an advisor for the brand in food and culture, while getting to spend more time with his family. “Jimmy John’s has found the ideal home at Inspire,” Liautaud said about the acquisition. “Inspire’s long-term approach, culture of innovation and commitment to helping brands grow sets it apart from the rest. I couldn’t be prouder of the company we’ve built, and I can’t wait to see what Jimmy John’s is able to accomplish under Inspire’s leadership.”

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