Hi Aaron, and welcome to www.entrepreneurship-interviews.com. You’re in the restaurant business; tell us a bit about what it is about? Cousins Subs is a restaurant specializing in East Coast-style submarine sandwiches made with the finest ingredients served on a variety of freshly-baked bread, along with salads, soups, chips, and soft drinks. We’re a leading quick-service sandwich chain serving larger than average submarine sandwiches — 7.5 inches versus our competitors’ 6-inch offerings – made-to-order and tailored to each customers’ specifications. There are about 150 company- and franchise-owned locations in six states.
You told me that you were lucky enough to start before the crisis but still had your share of troubles to finance your dream business. What was it exactly? I had a problem getting a loan to buy my first business because I was very young and did not have that much a credit history or ownership experience. But I was very persistent, continued to save money, and finally got my loan.
So you saved money to be able to get a loan from the bank? Yes, I saved as much money as I could and used it towards a down payment for my business which helped me to secure the loan.
And then invested the hard-earned money and the loan in a restaurant that didn’t do well? I invested in a restaurant where I believed I could come in and make some positive changes to improve the operations of the restaurant, which would increase sales. And that’s exactly what happened.
Most people are afraid to start a business from the ground, not to mention to take over a business that doesn’t go that well. What made you believe you could do better? I had a positive attitude, I was very motivated, and I believed in myself. The restaurant had been around for a few years and had been underachieving a previous couple of years, but I knew it had a lot of potentials.
Are franchises better than starting from the ground up? Franchises are better because you have a great support system, and you’re working with a proven business model. Plus, you’re affiliated with a brand name like Cousins Subs, which has been around for over 35 years.
So, ok, you had the money and took over the first restaurant. What were the next steps for, say, the first half a year? Getting new staff? Improving the location? Better marketing? The first steps were to replace the staff, improve guest service and the accuracy of orders, and market the fact that the location is under new ownership to get customers to come back in and try the restaurant again.
What are the things that make a great place to eat? The most important things about a great restaurant are friendly, quick service, quality food, and a pleasant atmosphere. We have all of those at Cousins Subs.
After a while, you bought 2 more locations. I bet that this required even more work, so how did you manage time between the 3 locations? At first, it was difficult to manage my time. When I take over a new location, I like to spend most of my time there to make sure everything is running smoothly and properly. But now I have achieved a good balance between the three locations.
And still talking about time, did you still have time for family and social life? The first year I had three locations was a busy year, but after a while, I was able to manage my time better, and I was able to work a little less, making more time for my personal life.
How important is it to keep a good balance between personal life and business? It is very important to have a good balance between your personal life and business. You need to have some time away from work to regain your focus. When I took over my third location, I worked too much and started to get drained, so I had to learn to balance my time between business and personal.
By the way, where are the restaurants located? My first restaurant is located in Minnetonka, my second is in Plymouth, and my third is in Minneapolis.
And what is the best thing you could eat? The best thing to eat at Cousins Subs is our Italian Special. It has cotechino bologna, cappacolla ham, genoa salami, provolone cheese and is prepared with oil dressing, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and seasoned with salt and oregano. Cousins Subs motto is “BETTER BREAD. BETTER SUBS.”
How did you overcome the “fear of entrepreneurship”? People are usually afraid to start on their own. I get that question a lot, and I always tell people it was positive thinking and believing in myself.
I bet that the first months you still questioned yourself: will this work? Am I doing the right things? Or not? I was extremely nervous during those first few months. I tried not to doubt myself and stayed positive. Each location I acquired posed new doubts, but I just continued to do my best and work hard each day.
What was the turning point when you knew you did it? I don’t believe I’m there yet. The fear that something could happen and that I could lose everything is still part of my motivation. Some people start slacking a little bit when they start thinking they’ve made it, so I just keep working hard.
How did the crisis affect the food industry? In the sandwich business, lunch is a huge part of sales, so when people lose their jobs, they aren’t stopping in for lunch breaks. On the flip side, families aren’t spending as much money going out for fancy dinners or lunches. Instead, they’re taking advantage of the restaurants that offer fresh and healthy meals at an affordable price – just like Cousins Subs.
What could go wrong in this business? What are the most sensible areas? A lot can go wrong with any business, especially the food business. There is a lot of competition out there, and new restaurants are always opening up, so sales are a major focus.
Any plans for the future that you would like to share? I don’t have any plans yet, but I always stay open to the possibility of expanding.