Firehouse Subs' Chris Sorensen on Franchising and Fighting Fires
Firehouse Subs was founded in 1994 in Jacksonville, Florida by firefighter brothers Robin and Chris Sorensen. A little over two decades later, Firehouse Subs now has 1,145 restaurants in 45 states, Puerto Rico, and Canada. Proving that Firehouse Subs is largely about giving back, however, Chris and Robin founded the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation in 2005, which has since given away more than $37.7 million to first-responders and public safety-related causes in 47 states, Puerto Rico, and Canada.
Beyond the aforementioned sandwiches and charity work, Firehouse Subs co-founder Chris Sorensen is also an accomplished musician. He not only plays gigs with his own, but has also played alongside members of Foghat, UFO, Def Leppard, Humble Pie, Earth, Wind & Fire, KC & The Sunshine Band, and Molly Hatchet. To learn more about the very interesting entrepreneur, who remains a resident of Florida, we chatted for The Daily Meal. More on Chris and his various ventures can be found online at www.firehousesubs.com.
After working as a firefighter, you co-founded Firehouse Subs in 1994. There are now over 1,000 locations of Firehouse Subs. Is there a company accomplishment you are most proud of?
Chris Sorensen: For my brother Robin and I, we tend to say Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation is the one thing we are most proud of building. What the Foundation has turned into has exceeded our wildest dreams, because we’re able to change and save lives. Working as a firefighter for more than 15 years, I’ve seen first hand the difference it makes to have the right gear. Even down to simple bunker gear, first responder agencies across the country are under tremendous pressure from budget cuts and lack of proper equipment and gear to do their jobs effectively. At the end of the day, we are very proud of what the Foundation has grown to become and lucky to have an amazing team that supports its efforts.
What inspired you to start franchising Firehouse Subs? Was it easy to let go?
No, not at first. We tried franchising fairly early in our brand’s development, working with a business partner to open a restaurant in Arkansas. But we realized pretty soon after, that we’d moved a little too fast, so we stopped to put our efforts into building the corporate stores in Jacksonville. Even though we weren’t focused on franchising, so many people kept calling us, interested in the concept. We were literally fielding hundreds of calls. After a while, we realized that someone local running a restaurant would be better than us trying to run a restaurant long-distance, so we decided to give franchising another try. We worked with Michael Seid, the author of Franchising For Dummies, and another business consultant, and together, we created a franchise model that has helped us grow our brand.
Since the beginning, we have always vetted potential franchisees and put them through a training process to decide if they’re a fit. We always try to do it right, take our time and are proud of the way we chose to grow our brand. So, to answer the question – yes, it was hard to let go at the beginning, but it was a faster way to grow and I think it was the right decision.
To someone who has not yet experienced Firehouse Subs, how would you describe the establishment? What sets it apart from other sandwich spots?
We provide a family-oriented, genuine experience. Firehouse Subs isn’t a themed restaurant, and it doesn’t feel that way because our restaurant is built on a legacy of authentic firefighter heritage and a passion for hearty, flavorful food. We steam our meats and cheeses, which you don’t see often. We also use the highest-quality products but still promise hefty portions. Each restaurant has its own unique experience, which is why every location includes its own custom, hand-painted mural. My brother and I grew up watching our parents, who were successful entrepreneurs themselves. They taught us the importance of customer service, and we believe it’s a crucial part of any business. At the end of the day, what sets us apart is our attention to quality – both with our food and our service.
What can you tell me about the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation? Are there any goals or initiatives beyond simply raising funds to donate?
In 2005, the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundationwas created with the mission of providing funding, life-saving equipment and educational opportunities to first responders and public safety organizations. To date, the Foundation has donated more than $37.7 million to hometown heroes in 47 states, Puerto Rico and Canada.
As for goals and initiatives, we are sticking to our core mission of providing life-saving equipment to first responders – police, fire, EMS, etc. – all across the country. It sounds simple, but it’s so crucial. This year, our brand implemented a new fundraising campaign in which a portion of every purchase made at U.S. Firehouse Subs locations supports the Foundation’s life-saving efforts. The funds raised through this campaign have allowed us to provide more grants to more departments, ultimately equipping first responders with the tools they need to better protect our communities. At this stage, we’re on a steady course, and I don’t see anything changing other than continuing to raise more money to support first responders and public safety organizations.
You are known to be very passionate about music. Rumor is that you have an impressive recording studio in your home. What's going on in your music career?
Music is in my blood – my grandfather had a master’s degree in music and was a cartoonist for the Detroit Times. He wrote symphonies and was an artist like me. It’s something I fully enjoy, and I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to pursue a career in music when I was younger. It didn’t work out, but music continues to be a passion of mine, and it will be that way until my fingers stop working. As far as my studio, I do have a lot of top of the line equipment and way too many guitars, but it’s just something that I will never give up because I enjoy it.
Any relation to Royal Hunt drummer Allan Sørensen?
No, but maybe down the line. There aren’t very many Sorensens in America, but not to my knowledge is there any relation.
Who is in your band these days?
I don’t play with anyone on a consistent basis right now. I know Ronnie Winter, the lead singer of Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, and one of the members from Shinedown. They’re all at the point in their career where they’re touring, so it can be difficult to keep things consistent. As far as recording, we’ve got great talent in Jacksonville that I can call on when needed.
Rumor also has it that you have jammed with members of Foghat, UFO, Def Leppard, Humble Pie, and Molly Hatchet. Do you have go-to songs when it comes to jamming? Or do you usually take the 12-bar approach?
When I was 19, I was one of 150 guitarists who auditioned to be lead guitarist for Foghat. I was a Van Halen freak at the time, and I was a lot younger than them. I went to their studio and played for them, but ultimately, I didn’t get the job because they told me that I was a little extravagant. I think me being so young worked against me in that situation.
I did jam with UFO, and I’ve played with Molly Hatchet multiple times. My favorite band I’ve played with was probably Earth, Wind & Fire. I can play any style of music. Coming out of the 70’s, it was the decade of the lead guitar. I loved playing stuff from ZZ Top to Van Halen. I’m a huge fan of Pink Floyd; it was part of growing up for me. At that time, bands on the radio didn’t have the constraints that they do now, and I loved the variety.
Do you remember the first song you ever learned on guitar? Do you also play other instruments?
I don’t, because I started so young; I’m sure it was something like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Guitars were brutal back then -- they would tear up your fingers because the strings were so rough. My teacher managed to keep me interested by teaching me songs that were on the radio. I was learning the songs of the day, which kept me on track. I still have the folder from those lessons, and “Let It Be” is in there.
As for other instruments, I like to play the bass guitar, and I also know my way around a drum set. I play only a little bit of keyboard, which I’d say is the only thing I lack, I think. I’m toying with it now, because I think it’s very fascinating.
You also recorded with Ike Turner. What do you wish more people knew about Ike?
I spent a week with Ike in the studio, and I played a lead on a recording of “I’m Blue” for his My Blues Country album. In turn, he played on a few songs I wrote and even asked me to go on the road with him. I didn’t, because I was working with the fire department at the time and couldn’t leave to tour, but overall, it was a really interesting week.
Do you have any passions beyond food and music? Any ways you prefer to spend free time?
I am a huge history buff and art collector. I own three Salvador Dali paintings, and I love the old masters styles. I’m also an avid golfer.
Finally, Chris, any last words for the kids?
I knew from a young age what my passion was; I’m an artist with a love for music, food and painting. A lot of people will reach their thirties and still not know what they’re passionate about. If you are lucky enough to already know, follow your heart and go for it.