Now, more than ever, it’s critical to reevaluate your brand and adjust accordingly. Customers and technology are changing every day, and it’s your job as the CEO to identify that. Start understanding your brand values and stay true to them. If you have a hallmark sandwich or a distinct look, stick to it. Running a business is all about branding. To learn more on how to reinvent your brand in difficult times, join Richie Burke as he talks to an expert in the industry, Christine Specht, CEO of Cousins Subs. Learn how Christine reinvented the brand after years of difficult hurdles. Discover why you need to invest in digital technology and why you need a franchise model. Find out how Christine made sure Cousins was built for the future.
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How To Reinvent Your Brand In A Difficult Market With Christine Specht Of Cousins Subs
If you’re curious about how to successfully transform your brand, even in a highly competitive market, I’ve got a great episode with an amazing leader. We’ve got Christine Specht, the CEO of Cousins Subs. Christine’s father started the company in the ’70s and built an iconic brand in Wisconsin, but it got a little tired and dated. Christine and the team at Cousins have had to make a lot of difficult decisions over the last decade.
She has had to navigate a pandemic. They’ve opened stores, closed stores, and undergone an entire rebrand. They’ve invested a lot into technology. As a result of a lot of these decisions and investments, the future never looked brighter for Cousins. It’s a great story. You’ll get a lot of good takeaways from a leadership culture, business, and marketing standpoint for your company.
Before we dive in, I wanted to let you know that this interview is directly from the Keeping It Local Podcast powered by First Federal Bank. It’s a show that I host and we produced through GGMM. If you’re looking for more great local business content, make sure to check out the Keeping It Local Podcast after this episode. Thanks again for tuning in. Let’s dive in with Christine.
I’m joined by Christine Specht, the CEO of Cousins Subs, an iconic brand in Wisconsin with nearly 100 locations and Cousins turns 50 in 2022. Christine also happens to be a Board Member here at First Federal. Christine, welcome to the show.
It’s great to be here.
For those who don’t know, can you give a quick background on the company’s history and its ties to Southeast Wisconsin?
Cousins was started here in Milwaukee in 1972. As you said, we’re celebrating our 50th anniversary which is a great milestone, particularly, for restaurants because it’s a hard industry to have a lot of longevity in. Our first location was on 60th and Silver Spring. It was started by two cousins, my dad, Bill Specht, and his cousin, Jim Sheppard. They based their product on their favorite restaurant in Atlantic City, New Jersey where they are from.
My dad was living here when he started the business and recruited his cousin to move here to be partners. They started because they missed the East Coast-style sub sandwich and thought this would be a great time to open it up. It was with the intent of having one restaurant and seeing how it goes and maybe trying to support their families, but it took off from there. It hit home with people here in Milwaukee.
What was it like growing up in that family? Were you working in the stores? Did you ever think you would work for the family business as an actual career?
It was my first job when I was fifteen. I couldn’t wait. I worked at our store in Germantown, Wisconsin, which is still there. It’s one of our busiest restaurants. I still remember my first day working. Some of those things you don’t forget. Beyond working in restaurants as a cashier and a sandwich maker, I wasn’t thinking that I would do this as a career. My degrees have nothing to do with the restaurant industry. I have a Degree in Criminology and Law Studies and a Master’s in Public Administration.
My parents allowed me and encouraged me to forge my own path and see what else was out there. They never said you must work for the company. When I joined the company professionally in 2001, it was a welcome choice because I wanted to get back to the family business. My role back then in 2001 was in human resources. There wasn’t the plan then to have me run the company at some point in time, it was working for the company in HR and we’ll see where it goes. As things turned out, I had the opportunity and I went after it.Not every day is going to be great at your job, but you spend the best hours of your life at your job so you need to enjoy it. Click To Tweet
Is your husband still at the company too? What’s it like being in that family environment all the time compared to something else you could have gone and done?
I love it. I love being in the family business. I love my job. I tell people that, not every day is going to be great and whatever job you have. You spend the best hours of your life typically at your job. You need to enjoy it. I can say that I enjoy it. My husband, J.J., is still working at the company. He’s our Director of Franchise Sales. I appreciate it. It’s still going well since the last time we spoke.
I love it because he and I can talk about work at home, but it doesn’t necessarily run our lives because we have a family and we do other things, but when we do talk about work, we have a collective understanding of what’s happening. We can talk about ideas and challenges in a way that sometimes spouses can’t with one another because they’re not at the same company. He understands the business as well as I understand the business. We then can work together and talk about some of the challenges or even future opportunities where we want to go.
Cousins sandwich shop, you guys are in a very competitive business. What are some of the things that you focus on to stand out?
There are a few things we focus on and it’s about being true to the foundation of the brand. One of our values is grounded. You could ask anybody about our brand and they would tell you what we serve, grilled and deli fresh subs but beyond that, it’s served on bread. It is my dad and his cousin’s recipe from the ’70s. It’s the same recipe now as it was back then. That foundation, the bread is the hallmark of our brand.
To care about the quality of the product that we serve to our guests is very important. The other thing is we have continued to give back to the community. We have a foundation, the Make It Better Foundation. We’ve given over $750,000 since 2013 to various local organizations where our Cousins stores are located. We focus on things like health and wellness, youth education, and hunger.
There are a lot of outward-facing things that we do to differentiate ourselves from our competitors because it is highly competitive and somebody could say, “It’s another sub sandwich.” We try to be different. We have a very strong culture. I’m very proud of that. We were named the Top Workplace for 2022 by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. We’re happy about that and that’s the second year in a row.
To get awards that recognize our workplace, our work style, and our culture is very difficult because we have such a fragmented workforce. We’re not under one roof. We’re in many different buildings and it’s hard to drive that culture to all those locations. It’s similar to First Federal where they have different branches, yet it’s all under one roof. When you’re driving that culture, it’s critical that it gets down to everyone.
Can you touch on technology? You’ve evolved quite a bit. You had a big online ordering initiative that started before the pandemic, which paid off through the pandemic. Touch on the evolution of that.
Technology continues to evolve. That’s exactly right. Pre-pandemic, we had online ordering. We had third-party delivery. Little did we know how fortunate we were to have the technology in place to be able to ramp that up because of the pandemic. When COVID hit, that completely transformed how our guests were enjoying our sandwiches. They were then ordering through third-party delivery and ordering through curbside, which we didn’t even have curbside before the pandemic. We launched it in about 48 hours because we had the technology. We just never launched it. We were able to turn that component on and then connect with our guests to help them navigate through that.
Over the past several years, we’ve laid a foundation from a unified point of sale system in all of our restaurants to then continuing to increase the technology, whether it’s online ordering, third-party delivery, curbside, and now launching loyalty. All those components of technology have helped to complement our business and to help people get our product in a way they want to. Consumers are changing. Consumers are purchasing differently and you have to be ready to adapt to that. COVID forced that for many businesses, but since we had that foundation, we could highlight and enhance the technology that we did have.
You talk about the last several years and you started in 1972, but you’ve gone through a massive rebrand. You closed a lot of stores. You rebranded a lot of stores. You’ve opened a lot of new stores since then. Can you touch on the rebrand and the importance of that while staying true to Cousins’ roots because you guys do have such a loyal following in the area?
When I started in 2008 as the president, in the first few years, we were still working through some issues with my dad’s partner’s estate because my dad’s partner passed away. Starting in 2011, my leadership team and I took a look at the brand and we recognized it for what it was, a brand that serves great products in spite of our guest environment and inconsistencies that existed throughout the brand.
In 2001, we had some stores that were microwave stores. They didn’t have grills, yet we were serving cheesesteaks. We felt that was a big inconsistency in product quality and presentation to the guest. We made a program where we put grills in our locations and helped to subsidize some of the costs for our franchise owners to put grills in their locations because it makes a better product.Start embracing technology. Consumers are changing. They're purchasing differently and you have to be ready to adapt to that. Click To Tweet
That is one example where we’ve tried to increase the consistency of the product quality, but then certainly the environment. Our stores were very old, very tired, and very different from one another depending on the year in which they were built. Since that time, we’ve embarked on creating a brand strategy that unifies the look, where you know that if you’re in a Cousins, even if it doesn’t look exactly like the one you were in Appleton, you have the essence of the brand that you understand what that is. The brand that we have now is one that’s meant to continue to evolve where we maybe update some materials, colors and lighting, but the brand will continue to evolve in that way.
That was a big undertaking because we had a lot of corporate stores and franchise locations that needed reinvestment. We gave our franchisees the opportunity to reinvest. We said, “You have to reinvest. You have to do it,” when in the past, we didn’t make it enforced, but we gave them the opportunity to reinvest at the time their franchise agreement was going to be up for expiration and renewal. That way, they could plan for, “Do they want to still be with Cousins? Do they want to reinvest? How are they going to afford to reinvest?”
During that time, in those early, we closed 40 restaurants. We exited a number of franchisees, and then even now, we have franchisees that are selling to us corporately to move on because maybe they’re looking towards retirement. There has been a lot of change through that, but it has been good because we’ve been able to make the brand consistent for the consumer who deserves that experience every time.
Was there a lot of resistance or pushback when you took on that initiative? The business at the time was profitable and doing fine, but to get to the next level and build it and “future proof” it in a way, necessary steps?
It was met with some resistance but keep in mind that in 2008, we had a recession. We were climbing out of that and stores are profitable. The past philosophy for Cousins and the leadership of Cousins didn’t require those remodels because the individual franchisee was making money or maybe had a loan from their initial build-out. That was paid off, then you don’t want to have to go into another loan. It was very much individual and individual store-focused. We said, “We need to make this a brand while thinking of you individually. We think this will be better for you individually, but we can’t sacrifice the brand because we’re not enforcing a remodel.”
The price is the price and it varies depending on the location, but what we were was very transparent and very honest. We also involve the franchise community in decision-making. We show them design pallets ahead of time. We involve them. We ask them for their feedback so that it wasn’t pushed on them, which as a franchisor, you can do. Most franchisors do that. They tell their franchisees, “Remodel or you’re out.” We didn’t want to take that heavy-handed approach because that’s not our culture. It’s not the values that I live by.
You touched on culture and you mentioned you guys got voted Top Place to Work in the area by the Journal Sentinel. That’s a great award. Do you have any advice on building a culture? What do you guys focus on at Cousins? Any takeaways for other business owners or HR people reading this?
Things that we do to build our culture is we try to be authentic. For us, that means living our values. I mentioned that one of our values is grounded. We’re also optimistic, purposeful and passionate. Those are the four values that you’ll see on a wall in some type of artwork. You’ll see those in the restaurants and our corporate support center.
People know that you have to participate in that culture. You may not experience or live those values at the same level every single day, but it’s about understanding that that’s the expectation. When we hire people here at the office, I talked to them about our culture because I want to make sure that they are a culture fit. It’s from the very beginning life cycle of the employee when they come onboard, and then we live that.
Maybe that’s by having some fun at the office. Our support center made us a Cinco de Mayo potluck and everybody likes to participate. In our restaurants, we’ll reward and support them. Maybe we’ll give them a hot potato bar or an ice cream bar for all their teams to recognize them and the hard work that they’re doing. We try to make that on par at both levels at the support center and with our restaurants, but that culture has to start at the top. For me, that’s what I love to do. I love to live and talk about our culture and try to be as authentic as I can, and then push that down to our employees.
Employees that have left the company that doesn’t fit the culture figure it out pretty quickly. We’re not heavy-handed about it or anything, but it’s important to us. We will have turnover and we understand that. There’s this value set that we live by. I want you to love Cousins. We make and sell subs. I tell the team that all the time, “It’s very simple, but we have to make and sell as many subs as we can so we can pay debts, reinvest in our employees, and also reinvest in the community.” When you drive that home, they get and understand that. They want to make and sell as many subs as they can.
Are you still working in the stores too?
I still work in the stores. I was at our store on Villard working over lunch, which is great fun. We have great general managers. I work in all of our corporate stores once per year and now we’re up to 43. It’s filling my schedule more. It’s a great way for me to live those values, stay grounded, and still is one of the best parts of my job. I love it.
How do you decide which one you’re going to? Do you plan out much in advance so you’re dropping off?Work culture always starts at the top. Click To Tweet
I would never do that to the teams in the store. They want to be ready. I give my Director of Operations, Hillary, my schedule and she puts me wherever she wants me to go for that period of time, but it’s great fun. I love to connect with the employees. I love to connect with the guests. It keeps me hands-on in understanding what’s happening.
One more question about the in-store experience. How do you guys come up with new products and menu items?
At the corporate support center, we have a menu development team. We think about trends, profiles, and tastes that are coming up. We think about how can we do that and parlay that to Cousins and make it Cousins specific product. There are a couple of ways to do that. We can offer limited-time only subs or LTOs. We probably do those quarterly but then we can put them on permanent menu items.
For example, in the last couple of years, we’ve launched shakes and they’re incredible. They’re so good. We have chocolate and vanilla, and now we have strawberry. We’ll rotate other shake flavors in. There’s a gelato product. It’s wonderful, and yet other times like right now we have our East Coast Philly Sub Sandwich, and it’s a nod towards the East Coast Philly Sandwich in honor of our 50th-anniversary celebration. That will be on the menu limited time.
The best part about that is I’m on the menu development team and we do all that formulation of the product in our support center where we have a test kitchen. It’s a full store inside our support center, where we do anything from training, and baking classes to testing kiosks, which will you’ll see in-store soon. Also looking at the menu development and things like that. It’s a lot of fun because it also means a lot of trial and error. When we were coming with the shake flavor, for example, we tested 25 different shake flavors.
When did the cheese curds get added to the menu? Those are amazing. People don’t necessarily think of cheese curds when they’re going to get a sub.
They don’t. I’m glad you said that because that’s one of the things that helps to differentiate us from our competitors because we’re not just a sub and chips. We have all these fantastic sides.
The fries are pretty good too.
The fries are amazing. The cheese curds and soups are good. They’re high quality because we don’t want to just throw something on the menu and hope it works. We’re proud of those curds. We win awards for those curds. The kind of those best subs in the periodicals around the state. They’re very good. That has probably been about five years ago or maybe it was longer than that.
I wanted to make sure they got a plug on the show.
Thank you very much and they’re here to stay. Curds are not going anywhere.
You guys are making some aggressive moves towards the future too. You’re opening up new locations. You have some expansion coming. Can you touch on that?
We understand that while our current stores are doing very well. Over the last several years, our average sales of each unit have gone up 93%. That’s a huge jump and accomplishment for us. Same-store sales are up 57% over the last ten years, but we also need to forge new ground. We need to continue to grow and expand.
We do that in two ways. The new ground will be new growth and development. We’re looking at corporate development in Indiana and we’re very excited about that. We’re also looking at reinvestment in legacy markets where the stores maybe are old and tired. For example, we opened up two brand new freestanding locations with drive-throughs in Sheboygan. One on the north side and one on the south side.Stay very disciplined about what you're looking for and who you're looking for in terms of franchising. Click To Tweet
Cousins has been in the Sheboygan market for well over 25 years, but the stores got tired and became not in the right location exactly. When we acquired those stores corporately, we knew we had a long-term plan and that was reinvestment in the Sheboygan market to be the brand that we know we are and be proud of, but not just here in Milwaukee. We’re making sure that extends beyond Milwaukee, so Sheboygan, for example. We’re opening up a new freestanding restaurant in Green Bay. We’ll have more development in Green Bay. We’re very excited about the Fox Valley, but it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of planning.
What does freestanding mean?
Freestanding means it is its own building with a drive-through instead of being in a strip center. If we’re in a strip center, we want to be at the end of the strip center because we hope we would be able to have a drive-through, but that doesn’t always happen. That would be our second choice. That was a lesson out of COVID. While our drive-through stores have always been great because they gave a guest another option, it became so necessary. The performance of those drive-through locations is essential.
People’s habits continued to evolve. Less and less people are getting out of their vehicles to come inside. They want to make it quick. We have to design a drive-through flow that can make it quick, but yet to our quality. It still isn’t pre-made food. It’s made to order, yet we feel that we can execute it in a timely manner where people know that they may wait three minutes, but they’re going to have a great product that is made just for them.
Also, when I was doing my homework, I’m not sure if these numbers are still accurate, but I’m guessing they were close. You guys have 41 owned corporate stores, and 53 franchise or owned stores. How has that shifted over the last several years? How do you see that shifting in the future?
It has shifted a lot and that is very close. Right now, we have 43 corporate stores. Several years ago, we would have as few as 8, but it grew a little bit to 15, 16 units. This big growth trajectory we’ve had on a corporate basis is not necessarily new store development. It’s acquiring franchisees who are exiting the system.
When I started at Cousins in 2001, we had over 90 franchise groups. Now, we have less than 30 and that doesn’t mean we’re not franchising, but we’re very particular about who we’re franchising with. We don’t just open the flood gates. We stay very disciplined about what we are looking for and who we’re looking for in terms of franchising. With our franchisees, as I mentioned, many of them have been in the business for 20 to 25 years. They’re thinking about their retirement. They’re thinking this is probably a good time to sell because business has been very good for them.
Corporately, we’re natural buyers because we have the first right to buy. Because we already have the systems and processes in place, it’s not as though a franchisee has to sell to a brand-new person coming into the customs system. That’s difficult because that individual needs to learn the system. In this way, it can be nearly a seamless transition with corporate stores.
As long as we’re willing to invest in the labor and the support to help those stores be successful as corporate stores, we can continue to grow that. You will see continued corporate growth. At the same time, you will see franchise growth. Again, it’s about being very selective about who we pick and where we allow restaurants to grow.
Franchising and franchised concepts sometimes get a little bit fast and loose. They’ll award a franchise to about anybody. That may be great for the initial franchise fee, but it causes you pain because you’re married to them for ten years if that’s how long your agreement is. It’s about minimizing those pains that you will have with the relationship at the beginning. We would rather be very slow and cautious in our franchising than have anybody come in.
It seems much more sustainable and with a lot fewer headaches.
Yes, well said.
You’re very active in the Milwaukee community through the Make It Better Foundation at Cousins. Why did you join the First Federal Board here? Are there any similarities between your business and a community bank?
There are a number of reasons why I joined the First Federal Board.
Other than Ed Schaefer.
My dad was on the First Federal Board for many years. I didn’t lobby for it. When I was asked to be on it, I was touched because at that time my dad had stepped off and I thought, “Maybe I can do something good here.” It’s a great organization. They are so similar to Cousins in the sense that they’re Wisconsin based. They’re a small business. We’re not these big behemoths out there. We have competitors that are larger than us, but the similarities are such that they invest in the community, whether that’s buying branches that are in areas that maybe are underserved.
It’s about helping individuals achieve some financial independence and have a place to go or maybe if they’re starting their business, they have a trusted banking partner in their community. That’s important. I love that. They have their foundation just like Cousins has its foundation. They support causes whether that’s promoting financial literacy for young people, which is so important or helping a women’s shelter in Waukesha.
There are many things that First Federal does that touch the hearts and lives of individuals. It’s not for them just about getting a banking fee or making the money, it’s about staying invested in these communities. That is certainly at the heart of Cousins. Learning more in-depth about that in First Federal solidifies the relationship that I have with them. I couldn’t be more proud to be on the board of First Federal.
We’ll end it there. Thanks so much for coming on.
I had fun. Thank you.
Thanks so much for tuning in to this episode with Cousins’ CEO Christine Specht brought to you by Go Geddit Marketing and Media, GGMM.io. For our friends at Milwaukee, just a reminder, this was originally aired on First Federal Bank’s Keeping It Local Podcast. If you’re looking to grow your brand through podcasting, video, or digital advertising, make sure to reach out or head to our website, GGMM.io. We’ve got a form on there. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks again for tuning in.
- Cousins Subs
- Keeping It Local Podcast
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- Make It Better Foundation
- Christine Specht
About Christine Specht
I grew up with Cousins Subs—the sub sandwich chain my dad, Bill Specht, founded with his cousin in 1972. In fact, my first job was at the Cousins Subs in Germantown, Wisconsin.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in criminology and law studies from Marquette University and a master’s degree in public administration from American University, I returned to the family business. I have held the roles of Human Resources Manager, Chief Operating Officer, President and CEO, and now serves as CEO. I have successfully brought new life to a legacy brand by leading a series of system changes, including: a largescale rebranding strategy to establish consistency and unify the brand in look and feel across all locations, the implementation of grills in restaurants and the inclusion of Cousins Subs’ Midwest heritage throughout its menu with signature local products including subs served with all Wisconsin cheeses, Wisconsin Mac & Cheese and Wisconsin Cheese Curds.
I proudly serve on a number of boards, including: chair of MRA – The Management Association, chair of the Concordia University Wisconsin Ann Arbor Foundation board, member of the Concordia University Wisconsin Board of Regents and member of the First Federal Bank of Wisconsin board. I also serve as the president of the Cousins Subs Make It Better Foundation board and member of the Cousins Subs Board of Directors.
I previously served on the board of Community Memorial Hospital, Lutheran Living Services, Wisconsin Restaurant Association Milwaukee Chapter and Grace Lutheran Church.
In 2018, I was honored as one of the Milwaukee Business Journal’s Women of Influence and recognized in FastCasual magazine’s “Women in the Lead” series.
Cousins Subs was recently named ‘Best Sandwich’ in the 2019 Best of Milwaukee Awards and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Top Choice Awards Best Sandwiches or Sub Shop in 2019.