Yup, you can get the Jersey Shore right here in Minnesota. No, not Snooki — sub sandwiches.
Jersey Mike’s, a chain of East-Coast-style sandwich shops, plans to open about 10 new stores in the Twin Cities in the next year and a half. Eventually, the plan is to have 50 locations here, area franchisee John Griparis said.
Those numbers might sound ambitious for a store that has only four locations in the area so far, one of which opened last week in Blaine. But Jersey Mike’s is following a long line of restaurants — Chipotle, Panera, Noodles & Company — that have found success in the Twin Cities by advertising themselves as a cut above fast food.
“So far, the brand has been really well-received,” Griparis said. “People enjoy a quality product. … You get a fantastic sub, made fresh, delivered with a great experience.”
Jersey Mike’s serves its subs on bread baked in-store, with meat and cheese sliced fresh when you order. The restaurant’s trademark style is “Mike’s Way,” which adds onion, lettuce and tomato to any sandwich, along with a tangy mix of olive oil, spices and red wine vinegar.
The stores are bright and small, the walls adorned with surfboards and beachy postcards from Point Pleasant, N.J., references to the company’s New Jersey headquarters.
Jersey Mike’s already has at least one groupie: Jason Ahlstrom, 38, became such a regular of the St. Anthony location that employees started referring to him as their “VIP.”
“After getting burned out on Subway, I’m glad this is here,” Ahlstrom said. “I like it better because you get more meat, basically. You get what you pay for here.”
His grandmother lives near the St. Anthony store, but Ahlstrom works and lives in Blaine. He said the new location is more convenient for him, but he would eat at the restaurant no matter what.
“I go out of my way to eat at Jersey Mike’s,” he said. “How many places slice cheese for you? Think about it.”
“Fast-casual” chains like Jersey Mike’s have made a place for themselves by allowing cash-strapped consumers to avoid full-service restaurants, but promising them healthier, higher-quality food and a better atmosphere than they’d find at the average Burger King.
The Twin Cities eat it up, creating Facebook pages like “Chipotle for Minnetonka,” which pushed for the popular chain to add a second Minnetonka location. The 500-plus people who liked the page got their wish: The store opened this week.
“It’s really nice to know that there’s that much interest, that much demand in a community before you get there,” said Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold.
That demand will continue to grow, said Warren Solochek of the NPD Group consulting firm. Fast-casual restaurants are a small part of the food services industry — about 5 percent — but they’re growing much faster than any other segment. The $31 billion sector has seen visits increase by 6 to 8 percent each year for the past five years.
Solochek said the restaurants appeal to a variety of demographics. Millennials, hit hard by the recession, can afford the $6 sandwiches at Jersey Mike’s. And older Americans, increasingly worried about their health, can find food that won’t clog their arteries.
Those factors have helped Jersey Mike’s, founded in 1956, become one of the nation’s 10 fastest-growing limited-service chains, according to 2012 data from the research firm Technomic.
Griparis said the restaurant’s model is all about fresh fare — subs fresh-sliced to order, a fresh-grilled line of sandwiches — as well as the customer experience.
“We’re really focused on that guest experience,” Griparis said. “From franchisees to our team members, we encourage that fun, open dialogue with our guests. We truly want to get to know our customers.”
It’s a model that allowed Jersey Mike’s to bear the brunt of the recession, Griparis said. He and fellow franchisee Jeff Berns opened their first location in Illinois in April 2009, and it crossed their minds that they could have chosen a wiser time. But Griparis said it turned out fine.
“Instead of casual dining, people were trading down to the fast-casual market, and finding great value there,” he said.
The Twin Cities has been a particularly strong market for fast-casual dining, partly because those restaurants vow to deliver fresh, ethically sourced food, Solochek said.
“You have a population there that is probably more interested in eating healthy,” he said. “And you have the ability to put a lot of fast-casual chains within a city as opposed to them being spread out all over the place.”