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Three Questions: Firehouse Subs’ Greg Delks

Firehouse Subs has made significant headway in airports recently. The national chain of submarine sandwich restaurants opened its first airport location at Jacksonville International (JAX) in July 2017, and added another location at Orlando International (MC) in December. Locations in Minneapolis-St. Paul International (MSP) and Newark Liberty International (EWR) are in the works.

Greg Delks is the vice president for global and nontraditional development for Firehouse Subs. He spoke with ARN’s Rebecca Renner about the brand’s fit in the airport market, and the company’s plans for future growth.

Renner: What first attracted you to airports, and how did you first approach the challenge of getting a partner and pursuing contracts?

Delks: I kept championing the effort here internally to go into the airport space. I believed in it not only from a revenue standpoint but as an immense marketing tool. Being in a concourse avails itself to a more affluent traveler than the average person on the street, because they’re flying; they’re not driving a car, they’re not taking a bus or a train. Finally I was able to convince [our CEO Don Fox] and the executive team that we really need to be in the airport space.

Fast forward, HMSHost and I connected at the ARN Conference. That was the impetus for our introduction and initial interaction, and ultimately [we signed] a master license agreement. Our first airport was Jacksonville International (JAX).Now, we’re hometown heroes here. We have 37 company owned units around the country, including a majority in Jacksonville. We donate hundreds of thousands of dollars in lifesaving equipment to first responders in multiple counties [in the region], and that made it real natural for us to go into Jacksonville. We knew we could micromanage it and learn from it, then use it as a springboard for replicating and expanding. HMSHost has been a great mentor for us, and a great partner.

We have three [more] airports where we have won the RFP. We expect to open two more this year, possibly three, and I would expect by the end of 2019 we will be in nine airports.

Renner: Why do you think Firehouse Subs is a good fit for airports?

Delks: I would say that the fit is [the sandwiches are] transportable and high quality. We use USDA Choice or better meats. I think people realize that these are big-portion hot subs. Throughout the United States, our brand awareness has really grown, and I think that it makes it a natural for the traveler. It’s an easy product to carry on an airplane and an easy product to transport through an airport.

Renner: What are your airport expansion goals, and are you in an exclusive contract with HMSHost for airports?

[For airports], I would say sky’s the limit. No airport’s too small or too large. We started in 1994 and now we’re in 44 states with 1108 units [including street locations], The fact of the matter is we have a rock-solid franchise system. We are privately held and we are a debt-free company.

HMSHost is not an exclusive with us. They’re great partners but they’re not in every single airport. We would not go out and try to do it ourselves. We would partner with somebody who is already operating in an airport and understands logistics and the complex construction and buildout and rules and regulations, and we would defer to the partner [for airport operations]. At the end of the day, it’s disciplined growth and finding the right partner. We’re very protective of the brand to make sure that the customer really feels the experience in the airport as they do and are used to on the street.

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