robin and chris sorensen, founders of firehouse subs

Brothers Robin and Chris Sorensen left the fire station for the kitchen to create Firehouse Subs. (Photo: Firehouse Subs)

Firefighting may run in the Sorensen family, but brothers Chris and Robin are also fueled by another passion — food.

In October 1994, the two Sorensens decided to go from the fire station to the kitchen to create Firehouse Subs, a fast-casual restaurant that has grown from the first store in Jacksonville, Florida, to a multimillion-dollar chain of more than 850 franchises nationwide.

“We love to cook, that’s the bottom line, [ever] since we were kids,” said Robin Sorensen.

And Firehouse Subs is still cooking up a lot of business. In terms of growth, the company plans to reach 1,000 franchises by the end of 2015, and to have 2,000 restaurants serving up their gourmet hot subs by 2020. Also in 2015, a line of six new cold subs called “Cold Deli Heroes” is currently being tested at two stores in Jacksonville with more franchises to follow this summer.

Starting out
robin and c hris sorensen eating at firehouse subsFood and firefighting have been a long-time connection for Robin and his family. His father, Robert, a 40-plus year firefighting veteran, eventually became a captain, but on his first day of work at his firehouse he was given kitchen duty.

His father’s occupation would eventually influence Robin’s future company. At first, Robin followed in his father’s footsteps in becoming a firefighter, but one day while in the fire station he started to rethink his vocation.

“I loved firefighting, but it wasn’t where I felt like it was home,” Robin explained. Wanting to get into the restaurant business, Robin decided to leave firefighting and got a job as a cook at a barbecue restaurant in Jacksonville. While working at the restaurant, Robin came up with the concept for Firehouse Subs.

Deciding to focus on well-portioned sandwiches with quality meats, Robin and Chris spent two years doing research, scouting out current sub shops in Jacksonville and developing recipes in Chris’ kitchen. With a tight budget, the two purchased a steamer to warm up freshly sliced sandwiches and found that this method enhanced the flavor and texture of their subs.

Along with quality ingredients, Robin and Chris also wanted to provide strong customer service. They saw how their parents ran their TV store as a great example, focusing on acknowledging customers when they walked in. “People want to be recognized; they want to be appreciated,” explained Robin. “They want to know that they’re [being] appreciated for the fact that they are there.”

Growing and giving back

Since the beginning, frugality has been central to Firehouse Subs. The Sorensen brothers were originally turned down for financing for their first restaurant, so they borrowed a credit card from Robin’s mother-in-law for funding. To further save money, they didn’t take a company paycheck for about six years. In 2001, the company was debt-free.

Today the Sorensens help their franchisees grow with financing through Cap 94, their own lending company which to date has lent over $15 million. Started in 2004, Cap 94 lends part of Firehouse Subs’ profits out to franchises to help them get started.

“Instead of taking the [profits] home, we thought, is there anything else that we can do with it?” Robin said. “It was the difference between actually opening a store and not opening it. It was supporting people who we believed in. It’s been great. We’ve helped a lot of people out.”

And they also remember their roots in a different way. In 2005, the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization, was established to allocate funding to local fire, police and EMS for life-saving equipment, prevention education, scholarships and continued education, disaster preparedness and disaster relief. It now extends to supporting members of the U.S. military.

The idea originated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina when Robin and Firehouse Subs employees took an 18-wheeler packed with food and coffee in Pearlington, Mississippi, to help first responders refuel in-between shifts. Robin remembers the response to their gesture and described the experience as “life changing.”

firehouse subs buckets“We wanted to do something we believe in,” said Robin of the foundation’s start.

The foundation has donated $13 million to more than 1,000 police and fire departments in 43 states and Puerto Rico. Most of the foundation’s funding comes from a surprising source: the sale of empty 5-gallon pickle buckets sold at the stores for $2 a piece. The buckets are an affordable, practical way to support emergency responders, and they can be used for a variety of household tasks, from gardening to washing the car.

Money is also raised from another simple initiative in which customers round up the amount of their purchase to the nearest dollar.

Food and family
Since its start, Firehouse Subs has been a family-run operator with Robin’s parents, sisters, in-laws and a nephew holding various positions.

Robin emphasizes sticking to the company’s three-part mission of hearty flavorful food, heartfelt service, and public safety as key components in his family-run business. Neither he nor his brother had college degrees or formal culinary training, but they did have a willingness to learn and a drive to achieve — and he believes that’s the recipe for the Sorensens’ success.

“Anybody can be an entrepreneur,” said Robin. “The only ingredients we had for what we wanted to do [was] a willingness to work hard and we had better food; a better idea. Anything is possible.”

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Photos: Firehouse Subs