Wisconsin favorite Cousins Subs makes more than sandwiches. Their mission is to make their communities better, with heart.
Whether you call it a hero, spuckie, po’boy, hoagie, or grinder, a sub is more than just a sandwich. It’s a glorious stuffed bread indulgence that inspires loyalty, city rivalries, and, for many, an impassioned search for the perfect sub.
That quest for a great submarine sandwich inspired New Jersey cousins Bill Specht and Jim Sheppard to bring their love of East Coast-style subs to the Heartland. They set up shop in 1972 in Milwaukee, with their menu of sub sandwiches made on fresh bread baked daily soon became a local hit. Today, Cousins Subs is a Midwestern icon with nearly 100 sub shops throughout Wisconsin and Illinois.
Known for their classic deli fresh sandwiches, made to order grilled cheese steaks crafted with Wisconsin cheese, and decadent limited-time-only subs, the brand hallmark is the very best part of a great sub: the bread. Cousins Subs uses its original, proprietary recipe developed by Specht and Sheppard in 1972. Cousins Subs crew members bake fresh loaves in-store multiple times a day.
“Back in the ’70s there really wasn't much competition in the Milwaukee market,” recalled company CEO Christine Specht. “My dad firmly believed since he was living here that there could be a market for the sub that he had envisioned and grew up eating. He just decided to try it by opening up the first shop.
“The intention wasn't necessarily to expand and grow; he and his partner were just looking for an opportunity to support the family and do something they loved doing. It really caught on with Wisconsinites. They embraced Cousins Subs, and with that Bill and Jim were able to grow the business and open multiple locations.”
In the mid-90s, the cousins opened the family business to high-quality franchisees, some of whom still operate Cousins Subs restaurants today. “Fast-forward 47 years and we continue to grow,” Specht said. “We have signed a 40-store deal with a franchise operator for the Chicagoland market and we are currently building that out. We are also looking to grow contiguously throughout the Midwest and are seeking to partner with multi-unit investors that have the capital and resources to build the brand in new markets.”
Cousins Subs is deeply proud of its Wisconsin roots. “We've always been local, and it's such a catch phrase today,” Specht said. “That’s for a lot of different reasons. People talk about local farms, locally sourced ingredients and local in the sense of community. What we know is that we can't be all things to all people, but we can be authentically local in the Midwest. It's our real story, and we are executing that every single day.”
Consumers are attuned now more than ever to the ways companies behave, a realization that resonated with the Specht family nearly 50 years ago. “Certainly, your product has to stand the test of time, but it's deeper than that now. Consumers want to know if you're being conscientious in the way you operate and all of those types of things. For Cousins Subs, we didn't feel like we had to revamp the way we were doing things, we just had to tell the story. We're continuing to do what we've always done,” Specht added.
Making It Better
“We have partners and suppliers who’ve been with us for 40 years. With each one of our restaurants, whether it's a franchise-owned restaurant or a corporate restaurant, we support our local communities. We do that by supporting hyper-local initiatives on a corporate and store level, and through our Make It Better Foundation that supports the communities we at Cousins Subs proudly call home,” Specht stressed.
“People want to know if they are spending their hard-earned money at a place, good things are happening as a result of that,” she added. Established in 2013, the Make It Better Foundation addresses the vital community needs of youth education, hunger, and health and wellness, and has raised multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars to make a difference in Cousins Subs’ communities.
“One thing that's very special about Cousins Subs is our culture,” she said. “We expect people to embody our four core values: purposeful, passionate, optimistic, and grounded. They are more than just words in a boardroom or on a piece of paper, they are qualities that we consider when we look at franchise prospects and hire for our restaurants and corporate support center.”
“Our culture is under the umbrella of our mission – we believe in better through the continual improvement in everything we do. If you want to be affiliated with Cousins Subs, you possess the belief in better. That philosophy will create a better opportunity for you as a franchisee, and more opportunities to do better in your community,” Specht said.
“We are a real family business and there's a real authenticity that we embrace. We treat everybody like family, whether they’re employees, franchise partners, or vendors and we have a real honest, common-sense approach to the business,” she added.
As customer expectations of immediacy have increased, Cousins Subs has stayed true to the sandwiches they so beautifully build as they evolve technologically to meet the tricky demands of crafting them at the speed of life in 2019.
“All of our subs are freshly made to order. That means guests will never get in and out of our restaurant in under a minute because they’ll wait a few minutes for freshly made, often customized, food. That's why guests visit our restaurants. They know they're going to have their sub made in the manner in which they want it,” Specht said.
How and where guests are enjoying their made to order subs and sides is changing. Cousins Subs opened a delivery-only restaurant concept in downtown Milwaukee to bring its menu items to urban market businesses and residents where and when they want them. The sub shop also partners with a third-party delivery service to deliver quality sandwiches quickly and is continually introducing new technology, including a Point-of-Sale system, to make service more efficient without sacrificing taste and accuracy.
“It's about evolving strategies – being aware of what is on the horizon and being responsive and open to change,” Specht concluded. “As our brand continues to evolve to exceed customer expectations, the quality of our bread, ingredients and subs will remain constant.”
Wisconsin-based Cousins Subs®, a family-owned, fast casual sub shop established in 1972 by Bill Specht and his cousin, is driven by the mission to Believe in Better – both in the quality of food it serves and in the communities it supports. Cousins Subs and its franchisees operate nearly 100 sub sandwich shops throughout Wisconsin and Illinois providing guests with quality made to order deli-fresh and grilled subs using only the freshest ingredients on its signature bread that's baked daily.