When Robby Jones hitched his wagon to the Subway sandwich chain in 1987, he didn't really have much of a target for how fast or how big his franchise company might grow. He thought maybe 10 stores was a pretty good number.
"That was the last goal that I set, and we just kept adding. Some would come up for sale, but most of them we just opened up," said Jones, 55, who will soon open the 39th Subway eatery owned by RKJ and Sons, a Columbus company operated by his family, including is wife, Kim, who launched the first store at Cross Country Plaza on Macon Road.
Today, Jones, a Hardaway High and Columbus College graduate, also works closely with sons Brandon (operations and personnel director), Blake (maintenance) and Tyler (sandwich artist) to deliver a tasty sub sandwich or salad to hungry customers throughout the local area.
The company has grown to about 500 employees, most of them part-timers with the exception of managers. It also has delved now into the world of frozen yogurt, opening its first Yogli-Mogli outlet alongside its newly opened Subway store at Lakeside Village off U.S. Highway 80 in the Midland area of Columbus.
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The Ledger-Enquirer sat down with Jones last week to discuss his job, its challenges and the ride Subway has taken him on. The interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
How did Subway happen for you?
At the time we did it, no one had heard of it ... We bought our franchise in 1986 and there was probably 600 or 700 stores in the nation. There were none here. I was at a trade show when I first heard about the franchise. I told a friend of mine that I would never open a restaurant, and here I am. (laughs). We opened our first one at Cross Country and then we just opened them one at a time after that.
You left Campbell Soup after a couple of years?
I was a sales rep based here in Columbus. I had a territory and called on grocery stores and warehouses. Kim opened the first store, and I kept my job because we needed the income. It was at Cross Country and it did well, so I left Campbell's pretty quick and went in with her. She worked for about a year and then the kids were coming along. Fortunately, we were very blessed that she could take the time and spend it with the kids and raise them.
Whereabouts are your Subway outlets?
We have 12 stores in Albany and the rest of them are all up here. We're in Columbus, Fort Benning, Phenix City. And we've bought some out in small towns, Butler, Reynolds, Ellaville and Buena Vista. We go up to Manchester.
You can locate in smaller communities, obviously.
We can open up, say, where a McDonald's can't. We don't do the volumes that they do, but we don't have the overhead that they have, either. So we can go in smaller towns and do pretty well with it.
Has it been easy through the years with Subway?
Subway's wonderful. I have nothing but praise for my experience with Subway. I never dreamed I would have this many stores. Then again, I never dreamed Subway would have 40,000 stores. When I used to go to the annual conventions, it was small. When we opened our first store, I think there were 800 or 900 stores in the chain. But now, at the last convention we just got back from, there were over 5,000 people there. So the growth has definitely been more than we ever expected.
What is the key to operating a store smoothly?
The biggest thing is consistency, to make sure all of our stores present the same product, the same quality.
What's the biggest challenge?
People. But I have some wonderful people. There's two of my sons over there and another one around here. I have some really good people who have been with me many, many years and helped me out, because I couldn't do it without them. They're people I can trust and depend on.
Did you set out to create a family business?
Not really, it just kind of
evolved. My youngest wasn't even born (Brandon was 3 years old) when we opened the Cross Country location. At that time, it wasn't in my train of thought (laughs).
Any goals now, like getting to 50 or 60 stores?
Not really. We'd love to do that. I've got the people in place and we've got the structure. We could do it if opportunities became available. In Columbus and Albany, we've got the markets pretty well covered unless there's growth in the towns. So we would have to go somewhere else and probably have to buy somebody out or something like that, because of the growth of Subway.
Do you spend a lot of time visiting stores?
We have an office down here (on Gateway Road) and I spend a lot of time there. But I do get into the stores. One of the main things that I do if I walk into a store, is I'm still going to make sandwiches. I love it. That's my favorite part, getting in there and working and making sandwiches. I try to do it at least a couple of times a week. I'd like to do it more.
There's been plenty of sandwich competition pop up locally in recent years. Can you handle it?
People ask me if I worry about them and I really don't. I wish them the best. I don't want anybody to invest their money and lose. But, so far, generally what happens when someone opens is right at first we'll notice it in sales. But, then, within a short time our sales are right back ... We just try to do the best we can. I don't mean to sound cocky, because they're very good competitors. We just try not to worry about them and work on what we do.
The Subway name brings folks back?
I hope so.
Do you think Columbus now has enough restaurants overall?
The Columbus Park area seems to be oversaturated, and there's more coming, Chipotle and Panda Express and others. But our store still does well at Columbus Park. Our sales are still good. Everybody wants to go there. That's why I'm glad to put this out here (at Lakeside Village).
Will you eventually turn the business over to Brandon?
I don't ever plan to retire, as long as my health allows it. I do hope to travel more. But he has taken over a lot of what I used to do.
Finally, do you load up on Subway sandwiches?
I eat them at least three or four times a week. (smiles)