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Jacksonville's Firehouse subs approaches 500th store opening

Firehouse Subs co-founders Robin Sorensen, in jacket, and Chris Sorensen, guitar in hand, take part in a “crew rally” at the DoubleTree Hotel in Tampa to inspire people working at local stores and give them lessons they can take with them.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Firehouse Subs co-founders Robin Sorensen, in jacket, and Chris Sorensen, guitar in hand, take part in a “crew rally” at the DoubleTree Hotel in Tampa to inspire people working at local stores and give them lessons they can take with them.

TAMPA — A cashier got $50 for winning a Firehouse Subs trivia quiz. Another grabbed $192 from a money machine for knowing the chain earns 10 cents profit from a dollar of sales. Three human billboard volunteers gyrated wildly for a $100 prize in a roadside sign-waving contest.

"Those cell phone guys always look like someone they pulled off the streets trying to hide behind their sign," exhorted Alex Gonzales, Firehouse Subs bay area marketing director. "We want you three smiling, dancing and having some fun to bring people in."

That was the scene at a raucous crew rally staged Wednesday by the sub sandwich chain that showered $2,500 in cash and prizes on 225 bay area workers paid to be there. While rah-rah hotel ballroom training events to motivate far-flung managers and franchise owners are old news, the top brass at Firehouse Subs this year decided to take its pep rally on a 16-city tour.

It's a six-figure training investment in an industry with 150 percent annual turnover.

"We're getting so big we need to make sure our people in Oklahoma, Chicago and Denver know the founders, the heritage, mission and culture of what is still a family company," said Robin Sorensen, co-founder of the 440-store chain. "Many crew members work for us only a few months, but we want to inspire them to learn lessons they can take with them."

On Wednesday, a few said it reshaped their work attitude.

"I expected a boring meeting, but this pumped me up and taught me a lot," said Katie Kelly, 18, of Bloomingdale.

"It's my third job, and the first one to do anything like this to show their appreciation," said Bradley Lewellen, 23 of Sarasota. "I think I might stay longer."

The tour wheeled into Tampa for a ritual kicked off with 20 minutes of shuffle dancing, a clap stick chorus and wacky contests that explained the chain's history, customer engagement tactics and commitment to raise money to equip fire and rescue squads.

It's part of a fast-growing Florida sub chain that acts with a mind of its own. Unlike bigger rivals, there's no breakfast menu or delivery. Drive-through so far is available at only two stories. One big seller is a $2 plastic pickle barrel.

But the food and customer service are consistently good enough to rank Firehouse Subs at the top of 11 sub sandwich chains in a Consumer Reports survey of 36,733 subscribers.

The fast-food market is flooded with sub sandwich makers. Subway has twice the stores of McDonald's. Quizno's is moving into Hess Express stations. Jimmy John's, rated fourth by Consumer Reports, is adding stores. Jason's Deli, which shares the top rating with Firehouse, is now in Clearwater and Tampa.

Firehouse's sales rose 14 percent to $235 million in 2010. They're headed for $300 million when the 500th store opens at year's end. Sales in stores open more than a year are up 5.8 percent.

Founded in Jacksonville 17 years ago by two firefighter sons of a fire captain, Firehouse Subs is adding another point of difference to its lineup of steamed cold cuts and cheese sandwiches. By Oct. 1, all bay area stores will sport a new self-serve Freestyle dispenser from Coca-Cola Co. that mixes 120 flavors of soft drinks, 60 of them sugar free. Or customers can mix their own flavors.

"Where we tested it, traffic is up 11 percent," said Don Fox, chief executive.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Jacksonville's Firehouse subs approaches 500th store opening 08/10/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 10, 2011 9:35pm]
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