This sandwich shop came back from the brink of bankruptcy to become the fastest-growing chain in the US

In the last 40 years, Jersey Mike’s CEO has seen the chain go from millions of dollars in debt to the fastest-growing chain in the US.

On Tuesday, Nation’s Restaurant News announced that, for the third year in a row, Jersey Mike’s topped its list of America’s 100 fastest-growing chains, measured by sales growth in the US.

However, the journey to $675 million in annual sales and 1,046 locations was far from an easy one. 

Peter Cancro bought the first Jersey Mike’s at the age of 17, as a high-school senior who had spent previous summers working at the Point Pleasant, New Jersey sandwich shop. As Cancro wrote in the New York Times, he went door to door in 1975 to see if neighbours would help him raise money to buy the store.  

Since then, Cancro says that not much has changed at the shop, reports QSR Magazine. However, while the menu may have stayed the same, the chain’s financial information tells a different story. 

In Cancro’s 40 years of leadership, he says his lowest point as CEO came in the early 1990s.

Jersey Mike’s began franchising in 1987. For about four years, the chain experienced explosive growth. Then, in 1991, business finally hit a brick wall.

“I didn’t declare bankruptcy, but I was negative $2 million to $5 million,” Cancro told QSR. “That’s when I buttoned the chinstrap. I visited every single owner.”

Slowly, the company rebuilt its business — all under Cancro’s leadership.

“We went back to basics. We honed the business model to ensure profitability of our stores,” Hoyt Jones, the president of Jersey Mike’s franchise systems, told Business Insider last December. “We also went after more franchisees with cash reserves. By making existing franchisees as strong as possible, we were poised for growth once things started to turn around.”

In 2011, the chain had 507 locations. Now, that number has doubled. By 2019, the company wants to double it again, with the goal of reaching 2,000 locations in the next three years.

Still, Jersey Mike’s executives don’t want to repeat the devastation of the early ’90s. The company is focused on working with experienced franchisees from its own and other brands, with half of the 155 locations the company opened in 2014 owned by existing franchisees. 

“It’s not just about getting bigger. We want every store to do well,” Cancro told QSR. “So it’s not about numbers. We want quality growth.”

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