NEW ORLEANS — Why raise even an eyebrow about a fast-food sandwich chain expanding in New Orleans, one of the world’s great culinary capitals?
The reason wears a No. 9 jersey and loves the chain’s No. 9 sandwich.
The local franchise of Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches is expanding its reach in the New Orleans area. The guy behind the move is Drew Brees.
The Saints star quarterback, a co-owner in the local franchise, opened his first Jimmy John’s in Metairie last September. A second is set to open July 31 in Elmwood. The third, planned for the Maple Street commercial corridor near the universities Uptown, recently flew through the New Orleans City Council like one of Brees’ pinpoint passes, receiving unanimous approval for a conditional-use permit. It should open in October.
Brees also is scouting locations on the north shore and West Bank.
Though Uptown neighborhoods are famously adverse to chain operations, only a handful of residents raised objections at the City Council meeting. With Starbucks already in the neighborhood, the sandwich shop won’t be the first national brand on the street.
Jimmy John’s, based in Champaign, Ill., is the fourth biggest sandwich chain in the country, according to restaurant consulting firm Technomic.
The sandwich-maker falls in the same fast-food spectrum as Subway and Quiznos, and, as such, won’t really be much of a threat to New Orleans’ indigenous bread-based staple, the po-boy.
Like similar chains, Jimmy John’s features quickly prepared, inexpensive subs, either in the store or through home delivery. Branding its service “freakishly fast,” (perhaps a tag line Brees might pick up for his passes) the sandwiches, only offered cold, are assembled with meats and cheeses sliced daily on site and cradled in white, 8-inch hoagie-style rolls with a crisp exterior and chewy interior, or on thick-sliced seven-grain bread. There’s also the “unwich” — fillings wrapped in lettuce.
Founded in 1983, the chain has targeted much of its growth to college towns. That’s where Brees first developed an appetite for the No. 9 “Italian Night Club” with salami, capicola, ham and provolone, which he would get delivered while he was up late studying at Purdue University.
A buddy of Brees’, a football walk-on at Purdue, worked at the chain and eventually joined the company’s corporate office. A few years ago, Brees dialed him up.
“I was back on the Purdue campus doing some charity work and stopped in a Jimmy John’s,” Brees said. “I was eating a No. 9, and I called him and said, ‘I want to bring Jimmy John’s to New Orleans.’ He said, ‘If you’re serious, let’s talk.'”
Soon Brees was in Illinois, meeting with the company’s founder, Jimmy John Liautaud.
Liautaud keeps close watch over the brand’s image. Each store looks identical to the others.
Brees often pops in, generating traffic jams by tweeting to his 1.2 million followers that he’s grabbing a sandwich. He made a brief appearance at the franchise’s “customer appreciation day” earlier this year to try to break a company record for most sandwiches delivered in a four-hour span.
But the Metairie location, with its white walls, pithy slogans and black-and-red tile, has not one reference to its famous local owner or his team.
That could be a wise strategy, for a professional athlete as well as a restaurant corporation. “This isn’t his brand,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Illinois-based Technomic. “When a sports star’s image is involved in a restaurant, the success (often) lasts as long as his career. What if he got traded? How is Brett Favre’s restaurant doing in Green Bay? There are pros and cons to announcing that you’re part of it.”
Brees is following an unofficial NFL tradition. With outsized appetites, pro-athletes are famous for investing in the food business, some very successfully and some spectacularly less so.
In New Orleans, there has been Ditka’s, Shula’s, and most recently, Manning’s. Those sit-down restaurants are mini-memorials to the players. Buying a franchise is a different business strategy, but also fairly common among those who make fortunes playing ball.
Magic Johnson bought into Fatburger. Retired Canadian Football League player Noah Cantor is a co-owner in the Vancouver-based Vera’s Burger Shack chain. Former Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Neil Smith, a New Orleans native, opened a Copeland’s franchise in Kansas City.
“Professional athletes know what a restaurant is, what a bowling alley is, what a car wash is. They may not know what a municipal bond is,” said Ed Butowsky, a managing partner for Texas-based Chapwood Investments who counsels professional athletes about financial issues and appears in the ESPN documentary “Broke,” examining why so many millionaire ballplayers end up bankrupt. “They like to invest in things they’re familiar with.
“Drew Brees seems like a smart guy. Where he and others like him can screw up is if they puts too much of their net worth into things like this.”
Among the national sandwich shops, Jimmy John’s, with 1,329 stores, is nipping at the heels of Quiznos, the No. 3 biggest chain in the sandwich sector. But it’s still a long way from Subway, the quick-sandwich colossus that has 24,722 stores and 47 percent market share based on sales, according to Technomic.
“Jimmy John’s is the fastest growing sandwich concept in the country,” Tristano said. “The fact that they do delivery is a major differentiator for them from Subway or anyone else. They’re also cold sandwiches; they don’t require toasting, so it’s a quicker process, and they travel better.”
Brees said the sandwich itself, not the idea of owning a restaurant, got him interested in Jimmy John’s. He’s also involved with other new business ventures, including the launch of a lifestyle apparel company inspired by New Orleans.
“It’s apparel but it could be a lot of things as well,” he said. “It’s not just T-shirts. We’re very excited about the initial launch.”
As for the restaurant business, “this is just the beginning,” Brees said. “I feel like there are so many opportunities down the road, but right now we’re very focused on building Jimmy John’s.”