After closing five Twin Cities locations in 2015, Cousins Subs is planning a bigger and better comeback.
The rebranded and remodeled sandwich chain based in Menomonee Falls, Wis., is planning to add 20 or more Twin Cities locations over the next three to four years.
“It’s too soon to say if any will open in 2019,” said Joe Ferguson, the company’s vice president of development.
In a similar expansion in Chicago announced three months ago, about five to seven locations per year will be added in an eight-year period. The first will open in January with four more under construction.
“The Minneapolis-St. Paul metro will be our second-largest expansion in the Midwest after Chicago,” said Christine Specht, chief executive and daughter of founder Bill Specht. “We’ve identified 25 trade areas in the Twin Cities and one to three operators.”
The company currently has about 100 locations in Wisconsin, with about 80 percent franchisee-owned and the remainder, all in Milwaukee, company-owned. All Twin Cities locations are expected to be franchisee-owned and approximately 1,800 to 2,400 square feet with a mixture of new and existing construction.
“We believe this is a good time to enter new markets,” Ferguson said. Same-store sales have increased 21 percent since 2011, he said, and the last 15 of 17 quarters have shown positive growth.
At its peak in 2003, the chain had more than 170 locations, but it’s been up and down since. Recently, its four locations in Arizona closed. In 2008, it announced an expansion of more than 25 stores that never happened, likely a response to the spawning recession.
Specht said this time is different. “We’re peeling back the onion and taking a hard look at what we need to do differently,” she said. “We’re changing the type of franchisees we’re pursuing and can give them a great package. We believe this will change the story.”
The prototype for the aggressive development includes a modern, yet Midwestern appeal.
Specht describes the restaurant decor of natural wood and stone, exposed ductwork-and-joist ceilings and, of course, subway tile as reflective of “hardworking Midwesterners.”
Diners will discover a bevy of Wisconsin-based food sources, including Johnsonville Sausage, Sprecher root beer, Wisconsin cheeses such as Sargento, Badger Boiled Ham and Klement’s Sausage. “That is part of my dad’s legacy, developing these relationships over time,” said Specht.
How Cousins will compete with a smorgasbord of sandwich shops — Subway, Jimmy John’s, Potbelly and Which Wich — is yet to play out in the Twin Cities.
“With the quality of the experience, the service and the food, it’s affordable and a much better experience than a Subway,” Darren Tristano, chief executive of Foodservice Results, a Chicago consulting firm, said. “Ultimately, Cousins is a brand that’s appealing to its Midwestern base instead of being a national brand that’s trying to satisfy all.”
Ferguson said that the new locations will likely be in suburbs such as Eden Prairie, Burnsville, Minnetonka, Brooklyn Park, Woodbury and Eagan as well as central business locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Besides Minnesota and Illinois, the company plans further Midwestern expansion in Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Missouri.
Cousins Subs was established in 1972 by Bill Specht and his cousin James Sheppard, when the two New Jersey natives could not find a sandwich shop to their liking after moving to the Milwaukee area.