As part of my series about prominent entrepreneurs and executives that overcame adversity to achieve great success, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robin Sorensen.
Robin Sorensen, Co-Founder of Firehouse Subs and Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, who, with his brother, Chris Sorensen, fueled the fire of passionately serving food and the community by creating the brand with the best steaming hot subs around 25 years ago in Jacksonville, FL.
Jason Crowley: Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Robin Sorensen: First, I am a master of nothing, just a mere student of the restaurant business that I love.
I really love to cook and have a passion for great food. I had the desire to open my own restaurant early on. I’ve had the entrepreneurial drive and spirit since I was a teenager, and that’s when I had the initial desire to open my own restaurant. I tried other things, like firefighting, and my brother, Chris, and I explored a few business ventures that didn’t work out, but ultimately, food was our passion.
Crowley: Can you share your story of when you were on the brink of failure? First, take us back to what it was like during the darkest days.
Sorensen: A tough time for Firehouse Subs was during the 2008–09 recession. We were suffering for two years with negative comp sales and an average unit volume that dropped to our lowest point since 2000. We had the highest percentage ever of franchisees behind with vendors. We were obviously headed in the wrong direction. Something had to change or we were going down. Fortunately, we kept a tight grip on our long-term strategy, and didn’t buckle on our mission, values or food quality. We had to make some big changes and tough calls to form a new approach to building our brand. It was an all or nothing moment for us. We parted ways with our advertising agency and started with a new one, who said (demanded, really) it would take an investment double that of which we were currently spending to be heard. That coupled with a better way to tell our story, lead us to an incredible turnaround for our brand and family of franchisees. We had a great run from the end of 2009 through 2012, which has to be one of the best turnaround stories I’ve ever known.
Crowley: What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?
Sorensen: There was never a loss of drive or passion during the hard times. Yeah, we were up against the wall with people demanding solutions, sleepless nights and feeling the business on the ropes, but there was NEVER a MOMENT that we lost our belief in, and passion for the brand.
Crowley: Tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and achieve massive success? What did the next chapter look like?
Sorensen: We sought outside advice and counsel from industry leaders we admire. We talked to so many people about their experiences and learnings to make sure we weren’t missing something. Those conversations — and our own intuition — led to a new advertising agency. That decision would change the path of our brand forever. We also made sure to continue our strict discipline to financial frugality. As owners, we have always put the business and its needs over our personal lifestyles.
Crowley: Based on your experience, can you share a 3 actionable pieces of advice about how to develop the mindset needed to persevere through adversity? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Sorensen: Simply, solve the problem. During the bad times of the economic downturn, we, as the franchisor, felt the pressure and pain. For us, it was solve the problem, or fail. Everything else was on hold.
Crowley: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Sorensen: There is an endless list of people who’ve helped, supported and guided us in our 25 years of business. For me personally, there is a handful of people who’ve been absolutely critical to our success, my brother, Chris, and our CEO Don Fox being among them. In addition, since the 90’s, I’ve had one person I can count on for solid advice. It’s not always what I want to hear but I call anyway. An excellent sounding board, a voice of reason and always a pure and smart view and analysis of the business. We discuss all aspects of the business from financial and strategic advice, big picture to small. When I’ve gone off the rails a bit, or was just dreaming a little too big, he’s been right there to remind me to refocus and execute our plan, and like good barbeque, take it slow.
Crowley: Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Sorensen: For Firehouse Subs, we have exciting projects in the pipeline, from new menu items being introduced this year, to our “Restaurant of the Future,” a brand new design and layout to our footprint in an effort to improve our dining experience for the consumers, who more and more are taking their food to-go. We are also continuing to steadily grow our brand and presence across the country, allowing franchisees to own their own business and provide new jobs in new communities.
With Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, this is where we have the ability to affect lives in a different way. Each quarter, the Foundation provides grant dollars to supply lifesaving equipment and needed resources to first responders and public safety organizations, schools and hospitals all over the country. Since we started the Foundation in 2005 during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we’ve granted more than $40 million in 48 states. Those donations have impacted and saved countless lives, including the lives of people that are members of our brand. Watching our Foundation grow into something we never could have imagined is so fulfilling, and has given Firehouse Subs an incredible purpose.
Crowley: You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Sorensen: In 1994, all I had on my mind was the food. This journey has allowed us to help so many people in incredible ways — ways I had never thought about when we started this business. The opportunities to provide to our employees, to help franchisees financially by backing their business dreams, to the charity work of the Foundation. We’ve been able to help a lot of people start a new path in their lives. What our Foundation has accomplished and the ability to help communities and save lives has been one of the most rewarding parts of this journey, which has allowed us to do bigger things that we initially imagined.
Crowley: Any parting words of wisdom that you would like to share?
Sorensen: Looking back on the last 25 years, some of the best advice that has been given to me has been so simple — plan and execute, surround yourself with smarter (than you) people, let them do their jobs and keep your mission and values in the forefront. An easier way to put it is, do the work and do it well.
Crowley:How can our readers follow you on social media?
Sorensen: Company Website: FirehouseSubs.com
Crowley: Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.