At 45, Cousins Subs focuses on staying fresh
Company to expand into Chicagoland, add more assembly line format stores

By Katherine Michalets - Freeman Staff

July 5, 2017

WAUKESHA óThe fast casual restaurant industry is highly competitive, but at 45 years of age, Cousins Subs has a handle on the Wisconsin market and is starting to expand into Chicagoland.

Christine Specht is the CEO and president of Cousins Subs, which is celebrating 45 years in business.
Submitted photo

Christine Specht, president and chief executive officer of Cousins Subs and daughter of Cousins Subs co-founder Bill Specht, is passionate about quality sub sandwiches, especially her favorite, a half tuna with hot pepper relish.

Cousins Subs, headquartered in Menomonee Falls, was founded by Bill Specht and his cousin Jim Sheppard in 1972. Throughout its 45 years, Cousins Subs has committed to using fresh and quality ingredients. Itís now also courting millennial consumers with more technology and Project Henry, an assembly-style ordering system at some of its new and remodeled locations.

Recently, Christine Specht took a few minutes to share her vision for the company with The Freeman.

THE FREEMAN: What has helped Cousins Subs survive and excel during its 45 years of operation?

CHRISTINE SPECHT: One of the things that we really pride ourselves on is the consistency of our product offerings. So very little has changed in 45 years in terms of our approach to quality, the type of meats, and as anything, itís been enhanced through the years. Our focus on working with local companies, making sure the bread is baked twice a day in our restaurants, the kind of the recipes really have been consistent over the years.

FREEMAN: What are the plans for the companyís future? How will you keep it competitive?

SPECHT: One of the things we have been doing over the last few years is really embarking on a branding campaign and that we believe is going to help secure our footing for the future. And what I mean by that is we have had everything from a logo change to an ambitious remodeling program for our franchise-owned stores and our

corporately-owned stores that really help to tell the story of Cousins, what we stand for, whatís important to us. And at the same time, fashioning in a way that is appealing to not only our existing consumers but our consumers that we hope to gain in the future.

Some of the things we talked about with our brand remodeling and our refresh, we talk a lot more about our history, the fact that we were founded here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We talk about that itís a real family business. We talk about the product offerings and the quality and our commitment to the community and what we have done on a philanthropic basis.

FREEMAN: What are you doing to retain customers other than through the quality control you mentioned? And to attract new customers?

SPECHT: One way is we always look at our menu items to make sure that we are on trend with different flavors that we have. For example, the limited time only offerings right now with our Wisconsin pulled pork and our Cubano. Those are flavors that have been very popular amongst our guests and that we think are really appealing to new consumers. Again, it just gets to the environment.

One of the things we have also done is some of our restaurants have launched a new prototype. Itís called Project Henry and itís an assembly-style method of ordering so itís fashioned off Henry Ford and the assembly line he created. And really with that it is meant to appeal to all consumers, but particularly the young consumers, the millennials, who order with their eyes. We want them to see the choices in front of them. They walk down the line, they know the options, they can create their own sub in their own unique way. They donít have to order as it is specifically on the menu. You donít have to at any of our restaurants, but having the design of the restaurant with the guest flow the way it is, really emphasizes the fact that you have choices.

FREEMAN: Are more stores having the Project Henry assembly lines?

SPECHT: Yes, all new stores and new developments will have that assembly- line style of ordering and then stores as they are remodeled in the Milwaukee area, some will and some wonít, there is just a number of factors that will determine whether we want to pursue that and it just depends a lot of times on the market.|

FREEMAN: Are you offering ordering ahead and delivery services? How are you incorporating technology into the business model?

SPECHT: What we believe now is companies, particularly that are B (business) to C (consumer), they are really shaping themselves to be technology companies that just happen to sell, for us, sub sandwiches. How are we going to get there? Technology is playing such a huge role in how people perceive the brand and how they actually receive their good or service. For us, we have had online ordering for many years. We continue to encourage our guests to, itís no longer the fax machine, you can call in and order, but really online ordering is the way to go because itís easy, itís clear, thereís no mistaking what you are ordering. And that is sent to our kitchens in our restaurants. Itís a very efficient process and we have seen good results with that. People really like online ordering because itís convenient. They want convenience.

Technology in other ways, we are in the middle of rolling out a point of sales system throughout our entire system that will have guest-facing terminals so they can see what they are ordering so again you are ensuring that itís accurate and what the guest wants. There are conveniences that will come along with that in terms of how gift cards will work and what our future loyalty program will look like.

Those things are all really on trend with where companies need to go to stay relevant, particularly to the generations that are completely tied to their smartphones. For us, itís how do we draw the connectivity. In the future, as we have seen, could you have kiosk ordering? Certainly. I think kiosks are certainly something that we will take a look at and explore because itís what the guests are asking for.

FREEMAN: How important is growth to Cousins Subs and what is your growth strategy?

SPECHT: Growth is very important. Businesses in general should be wary of remaining the same or being stagnant. For us, our approach has always been, at least since I have been president, letís have intelligent growth, not growth at all costs. I think when companies do that it can be problematic and operators are inviting issues into your systems that you didnít have to so our growth has been very calculated and it is important.

We have signed three multi-unit operators. More recently, we signed one in the Chicagoland area and we are very excited about that because they have committed to building out 10 restaurants in the Chicagoland area and they are confident that is really just the beginning. Growth through franchising is very important to us. Corporate growth could be a potential opportunity, as well. We take the opportunities as they come across our desks.

FREEMAN: What is getting you excited these days about Cousins Subs and being in business as a whole?

SPECHT: Some of the things that are really exciting for me, I think as a brand we do so much for being the local person, being smaller than the rest. I mentioned before that we are very nimble and I am excited about rolling out our new technology platform. I think it is really going to increase customer satisfaction, and that it will increase the data that we are collecting so we have a better understanding of what our guests want. And our ability then to be able to adapt and adjust to that.

I think itís exciting that we are on the forefront of growth in a new market and we have multi-unit operators that want to grow with us, that want to be part of this. I think itís exciting that we have our existing franchisees who are willing to make the reinvestment in their business in support of making their brand consistent as a whole in terms of the environment.

The economy is plugging away, I am optimistic. I think people are feeling pretty optimistic these days. I think that all is good. We are excited about being 45; not every restaurant company can say that. It has not been an easy road, but itís one that we can be proud of.