In the early 90s, Chris and Robin Sorensen knew they wanted to start their own restaurant. But they were hesitant after two of their previous business ventures failed to get off the ground.
One of their first ideas — a Christmas tree farm — was an admittedly odd choice for the brother duo from sunny Jacksonville, Florida.
“We should have researched, there’s not a lot of successful Christmas tree growers in the state of Florida,” Robin, the younger brother, told Business Insider. “We missed that one.”
Luckily, they packed in the idea before it went too far. The same was true for their real estate venture. Property wasn’t for them, they quickly realised.
But entrepreneurial spirit runs in the brothers’ blood. Their parents set up a television business in the 1960s. Their father was also a fireman full time.
“It was so unique for us to grow up in a household where we had a family business and our dad was a fireman — and we loved both sides of it, ” Robin said.
The siblings ultimately joined the two ideas and opened their own restaurant called Firehouse Subs. Their first restaurant opened in 1994 in Florida. Chris was 34 years old, while Rob was only 26.
Now, the brothers have almost 1,100 Firehouse Subs restaurants across 44 US states, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Canada. Over 400 small business owners have their own piece of the dream too as franchisees.
In 2016, Firehouse Subs won the #2 spot in Forbes’ “Best Franchises in America” in the $US500,000 and up investment level category.
The duo spoke to Business Insider about starting their business at a young age and what advice they would give to anybody else starting out in the restaurant business.
Here are the 6 lessons they learned.
1. A business degree isn’t everything
Chris and Robin were 34 and 26, respectively, when they opened the first Firehouse Subs. At the time, they were both firefighters. Neither of them had any formal business training or qualifications. They learned everything they needed to know from watching and helping their parents run their own TV business, Chris said.
Their father set up the business and became the biggest RCA dealer in the city. The family sold televisions, delivered them to people’s houses, and set them up.
The parents haven’t lost their entrepreneurial spirit over time either. At age 80 and 77, they are still helping out the family business behind the scenes. Robin says his mother has months of holiday days built up because she refuses to stop working five days a week.
“We were raised in a family business, so no business degree but we had a real life business degree of watching our parents,” Chris said. “We learned a tremendous amount about one of the most important sides of the restaurant business, which is customer service. It’s not formal, it’s not written on a piece of paper, but we both grew up in that environment, and that was a big help. It was ingrained in us.”
2. Make sure you’re driven by what’s important
The brothers never wanted to become rich from their business venture. They wanted to make enough money to pay the bills, and pay back Robin’s mother-in-law who they borrowed money from. Everything else, they said, was a bonus.
“Back then we were strictly driven by our intuition, our gut, the passion for this concept, and great food,” Robin said. “We put a lot of effort into making sure that we serve something different and unique and high quality — the money came later.”
3. You can learn about business in all sorts of places
Chris and Robin learned some of the most basic business lessons by doing jobs at a young age that got their hands dirty, like delivering and setting up televisions for their parents or making money from mowing grass.
“There’s never been a downtime where we weren’t staying busy and doing something,” said Robin. “Our drive and work ethic came from our dad especially — he worked 7 days a week for 26 years as a fireman and business owner. We didn’t take a lot of vacations as family.”
That work ethic carried on into adulthood. During the early days at Firehouse Subs, Chris and Robin even made the food.
4. Be frugal
Passion came first and the money came second for the brothers. This meant they were particularly careful with money for the first few years.
“Frugality was a big part of it, and we wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the early years and how we managed our money,” Robin said. “We put our business first and our lifestyle or our personal needs second or third. And that’s tough. That means as your money starting to come in, there’s a better use for this thousand bucks, than putting it in our pocket, and the use is putting it back in the business. And that’s hard to do sometimes.”
The brothers took a minimal salary and didn’t take any distribution of the profits until the day of their 10-year anniversary. Up until that point, Robin says there was always a better use for the funds.
5. Learn from people who know more than you
The brothers learned a lot from people they brought in for a fee to teach them about business. They say it’s important to be humble in these situations, and to gain expertise from the people who have succeeded where you want to succeed.
“In your head you plan, but to put it on paper and to hear experts help and teach you how to do this, it was a blast for both of us,” Chris said. “We had a few high-level people, who consult publicly traded companies, and they weren’t cheap, but starting from nothing as we did, we absorbed everything from everybody we could find willing to talk to us.”
One consultant they hired was $US5,000 per day, but to them it was worth it because it was their equivalent of Warren Buffett walking through the door.
6. You can’t control everything
When they started franchising, Robin admits he found it hard because he is a “bit of a control freak.” However, the duo interview and approve every franchisee themselves, and over time they have learned to relinquish a bit of the control.
“If you sit around and look at these people who represent our brand to the franchisees, it’s really amazing, you’ve just got to be willing to let them do their job,” Robin said. “We have great people who represent us and you’ve got to the that happen.”
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