Take Five with Cousins Subs’ Christine Specht

Christine Specht, CEO of Cousins Subs, literally grew up in the business. Her father, Bill Specht, founded it with, appropriately enough, his cousin, and she has worn a number of hats for Cousins, starting at age 15. Since Specht took over the franchise in 2015, Cousins has undergone a large-scale rebranding, the implementation of grills in most restaurants, and a focus on local sourcing such as Wisconsin cheeses.

This all has led to the strengthening of Cousins Subs’ unit-level economics and garnered a Milwaukee Business Journal’s Women of Influence honor and recognition such as FastCasual magazine’s “Women in the Lead” series. While there has been some pruning along the way, suffice to say that business is good, especially with its expansion into Chicago underway and the opening of a restaurant in Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport. Here are excerpts from our recent talk.

IB: Is the rebranding and other recent changes more evolutionary or revolutionary? The decision to upgrade your locations with grills, with an incentive program to help franchisees acquire them, sounds pretty basic, but the impact on sales has been anything but ordinary.

Specht: That’s funny because I would have immediately said that it’s been evolutionary because what I tell people is, we’re really just building on our strengths. You mentioned the grills in our restaurants. When our restaurants did not have grills, we knew that was an area of opportunity for us. So, we went on a program to establish flat-top grills in all of our restaurants. Where we don’t have them, we can’t have them because of either the footprint of the restaurant or the building doesn’t allow for it. For us, that was really pivotal because we were able to launch a whole new line of fresh chicken off the grill and position us as a place you want to come for cheesesteaks and chicken cheesesteaks and so on.

Continuing on with that was the branding, and what we’ve done with the branding in the interior of the restaurants is about three main areas that are really important to Cousins: our history, our cuisine philosophy, and our commitment to community. We’ve remodeled these stores with all that in mind, all under the guise of believing in better.

So, it’s evolutionary in the sense that we’re building upon what we’re good at … but then it’s also revolutionary because of the results we’ve had. We’re thrilled about that because the whole intent was to be stronger from the core. It’s kind of like pruning a tree. You cut off what isn’t beneficial to you and then by doing so, you’re going to strengthen that core. So, when we close restaurants, where we’ve exited certain franchisees, when we made staffing changes, that was all with the intent to make sure we are set up for growth because we are as strong as we can be.

“Whether you’re a man or a woman, running a business is about the skill sets you have.” — Christine Specht, CEO, Cousins Subs

IB: Going back to your decision to expand into Chicago, what goes into that kind of call? Were there focus groups of consumers involved?

Specht: Well, with the franchise operators, there are two brothers who have a business and they bought the rights to develop the 40-store agreement in the Chicagoland area. With Chicago being such a large market, we wanted to make sure that if we were going to develop there, it would be with the right group, meaning do they have the people resources, the financial resources, and the understanding of operating a business in Chicago? If so, that can be a really great opportunity because it’s a market that we’ve not been in as of late.

There two brothers, Amit and Kalpesh Patel, own OM Group. They are seasoned franchise operators. They have other concepts. They have gas stations. They have a desire to grow their business. They happen to be the nephews of a long-time franchise owner in our West Allis market, so there is familiarity with Cousins. They are working hard to get those restaurants open.

We didn’t have to do focus groups. While the two markets, Chicago and Milwaukee, are very different, when we opened up that first restaurant on Madison Street in Chicago, I was there and I can’t get over the number of people who came in and said, ‘Hey, so glad Cousins is finally here. I live in Kenosha, but I work in Chicago,’ or ‘I relocated from Wisconsin and I live here now, and I really miss Cousins.’ So, it really resonated.

IB: You’re an advocate of leading with purpose. What does that mean?

Specht: For me, leading can’t be accidental. It has to be with a plan and with intention on what I’m trying to accomplish. That means making sure that we have a strong culture among my franchisee ownership groups and among our corporate employees. How I do that is really where the purpose comes in. I’ll work in a restaurant. I’ll cashier and work with teams in those individual restaurants, which is just a great experience and a highlight of my job.

It’s a lot of fun because it’s a great opportunity for me to build a culture within that restaurant, to build team camaraderie, and to thank them for what they do because restaurant work is not easy. There is a lot going on in a restaurant, and sometimes restaurants don’t get favorability in the public eye, but there are a lot of great people who work there and work hard. If I feel I can, in some way, thank them and build that camaraderie and make a stronger culture that lives our mission, which is to believe in better — we believe in better through the continual improvement in everything we do — well, certainly that starts with me.



IB: What kind of an impact does it have on an employee to understand that the boss — you — once did the job they are now doing?

Specht: I hope they realize that I just don’t lead from my office, or that I’m out of touch and I don’t really know what’s going on. Hopefully, they realize that my intent is to make their lives and make their work as rewarding as possible.

Whether it’s myself or any member of my leadership team, we always tell people we’re very accessible. There is no ivory tower here. Franchisees can come in and talk to us. We’re happy to meet with employees. Obviously, I get out in the field and talk to employees. What I tell other people, and what I tell my support center here, is that the magic is in the restaurants. That’s where the soul of the company is. We make subs every single day, and so for me to be in a restaurant, that keeps me grounded, which is one of our values.

IB: What does Cousins look for a franchise operator?

Specht: We look for a few things. First of all, while there may be opportunities in some markets for single-unit operators, in general we’re looking to continue to grow throughout the Midwest. In order to do that, especially when it comes to trailblazing in new markets, we look for an individual who has multiunit growth capacity — financially and with human resources — and we look for people who really have an understanding of the restaurant business. Are they current restaurant owners? Are there different concepts? Have they worked in a restaurant?

It’s easy sometimes for people to look at a restaurant through a P&L and say, ‘Alright, this is what we do.’ But obviously, operations are such a large component of what we do that if you don’t really have an understanding of that, it will be challenging. As investors, if they don’t want to have that specific role, then it’s about making sure they have the human resources in place who know and understand restaurants.

IB: Yours is mainly a family business story, but it’s also about a woman in a business leadership position. What’s the current environment like for women — of any age — who want to run a business?

Specht: I’d like to make it a non-issue. Whether you’re a man or a woman, running a business is about the skill sets you have. Running a business is about how you communicate and how you work with other people and whether or not you have a passion for that business. I have a certain leadership style; it seems to work for the brand. I have a communications style. It is part of the family business. I certainly have a passion for the business, so I don’t run into issues of being excluded because I’m a woman.

At the same time, what I try to suggest to women who want to open and operate a business is to align with people who are supportive of you and ignore the naysayers and ignore a bit of that fray. I’d like to think that in today’s times, there is no better time to be a woman who is running a business. It’s certainly better today than it was 10, 20, or 30-plus years ago, so every day it gets better. It’s actually something to be optimistic about. We have a way to go. Obviously, there is a need for more women on boards, leading companies, and in key positions, but we continue to make strides.

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