When the Sorensen brothers started Firehouse Subs in Jacksonville, Fla., they weren’t looking to create a nationwide chain. They just wanted to create a spot for themselves, family, and friends to eat some great sandwiches. With a family history of producing firemen that stretches back two centuries, it quickly became an extension of the original family business. So with an armful of kitschy, firefighter-themed sandwich names, an almost obsessive mission for perfect ingredients, and later, a charitable eye toward the firefighting community, they opened their first store in 1994.
Twenty years later, there are 760 Firehouse Subs in 41 states nationwide. They’re still small compared with Subway or Quizno’s, but as founder Robin Sorensen said to a group of team members and journalists at his ranch in Cascade, Mont., “We’re constantly expanding. I think a few of them opened up while you were on your way here.”
“The bigger part of who we are is our passion and our hospitality, more than just being a franchise of sandwich shops,” Sorensen told The Daily Meal. “I have a passion for cooking, love to serve, and be around people. If I still had one restaurant I would be completely content.”
Passion is probably an understatement. The menu of Firehouse Subs may look familiar (it’s filled with turkey subs and pastrami and corn beef sandwiches). As Sorensen said, there are only so many combinations of sandwich meat, vegetables, and cheese that you could have. But Sorensen explained that he and his family are pretty much obsessed with finding the best ingredients, from their bread that they’ve gotten every day for almost the past two decades from a French bakery in Atlanta, to finding the perfect pickle made by a New York company that also supplies Katz’s deli.
“We would eat things and taste stuff and the majority of the stuff we’d try was terrible, I don’t want a frozen puck,” said Sorensen. “For the most part people won’t spend the money to buy high quality.”
Because they’re Southern-based, everything is about the mayo (Robin’s “glue that holds everything together” which tops almost every sandwich), and their Firehouse-branded hot sauce (which is named after their father, Rob Sorensen: the family and company patriarch).
Besides being a high-quality sandwich shop, the biggest arm of Firehouse Subs is probably the charitable element. Sorensen said after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Firehouse thought nothing of sending food and supplies to help the first responders in Louisiana, many of whom hadn’t had food or help for days.
Since then, the philanthropic aspect of Firehouse just stuck, and the Public Safety Foundation was born. Each franchise, Sorensen said, works with the local fire department and over the past near-decade, they’ve raised $9 million in funds for equipment, supplies, and safety education for fire and EMS departments in need. Just this past week, Firehouse Subs donated a rescue boat to the local fire department in Cascade, only a few miles away from the Sorensen ranch, for their emergency services on the Missouri River.
“We refer to it as the heart of Firehouse Subs,” said Robin Peters, the executive director of the Public Safety Foundation. “These people put their lives on the line to save ours. Our foundation has a commitment to helping them.”
Joanna Fantozzi is an Associate Editor with The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter@JoannaFantozzi