Mike Pietrzyk has always loved contributing to charitable causes. So it wasn't surprising that a decade ago the Firehouse Subs area representative came up with the idea of selling his restaurants' empty 5-gallon pickle buckets, rather than tossing them out. He estimates that his idea, at $2 per bucket, has helped the brand raise more than $600,000 for the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation. "Corporate loved the idea, and now Firehouse franchisees everywhere continue raising money by selling the buckets," he says.
The 65-year-old Pietrzyk is a longtime food business veteran and franchise executive. Starting out as a manager in a Burger Chef in Michigan, he went on to work with Pizza Hut, Wendy's, and eventually opened his first Little Caesars franchise in Virginia in 1984.
When we profiled Pietrzyk in mid-2010, he was blazing his way through a 58-store development agreement with Firehouse Subs and had opened 21 units. Today, he has 45 open, with three more in development that will open for business before year-end. "Our territory now stretches into Virginia, West Virginia, parts of Kentucky, and North Carolina," he says.
His development plan has not been without challenges. He says it can be difficult to find the right candidate who understands both the restaurant business and franchising. "We want it to be a good fit all the way around," he says. "If it's not right, then it's best for all parties to not move forward." He's also glad that the brand is very selective about territories and locations where it will allow expansion. "There is a strict set of criteria for identifying and opening new stores, and it really is beneficial to everyone."
Pietrzyk, a big supporter of the new menu items Firehouse rolled out in 2014, is eagerly anticipating the introduction of cold sandwiches to the brand's predominantly hot sandwich offerings. "In 2014 we added an Under 500 Calories menu of six subs and salads. We are also adding a new line of Cold Deli Heroes," he says. If the market tests now under way at 100 restaurants nationwide are successful, the line of six Cold Deli Heroes sandwiches will be rolled out to the brand's more than 900 locations in 2016.
Though his passion for business and the Firehouse brand has not waned, Pietrzyk is now 65, and his son Chris has been stepping in more and more as a partner. "I think we'll be at our 58 stores within the next 3 years," he says. "I see us renewing our development agreement and Chris taking on more and more responsibility."
In the meantime, Pietrzyk will continue supporting good causes. The Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation is continuing to make a difference in communities nationwide. Now in its 10th year, the foundation has donated $14 million in 43 states, providing life-saving equipment to first responders, he says. "That's something I am really proud to be a part of."
Name: Mike Pietrzyk
Title: Area representative
Company: Firehouse Subs
No. of units: 45 Firehouse Subs
Family: Wife Pam, 4 children, 14 grandchildren
Years in franchising: 10 with Firehouse Subs, 12 with Little Caesars
Years in current position: 10
Burger Chef, 1971.
I have been fortunate to work for companies at a time they were very successful. This was a major learning curve for me.
I've had several. The first would be my first job as a manager in 1971 with Burger Chef when I helped rescue a losing store scheduled to close and made it profitable. In 1994 I received Franchisee of the Year honors with Little Caesars. In 2009 I was named Area Representative of the Year with Firehouse Subs, and in 2010 I received the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation Culture Award.
Biggest current challenge:
Part of my job as an area representative is working closely with new and existing franchisees. A challenge has been helping new business owners find the best locations for development in a competitive environment.
Next big goal:
To transition my business to my son in the next 5 years.
First turning point in your career:
Putting together the necessary financial package and operating plan to buy out my partner in Little Caesars.
Best business decision:
In 1984 I gave up a very good position with Wendy's to become a franchisee with Little Caesars.
Hardest lesson learned:
The value in having a sound operating agreement with my partners.
Up at 6 a.m., on the road 2 to 3 days every other week, and home by 6 p.m.
A modest to light workout 2 days a week. On Sunday I still play basketball.
Best advice you ever got:
From my father-in-law, a well-respected doctor, who said, "Think like a farmer. First you build the barn, take care of the livestock, and then build your house. In other words, take care of the employees and the business, and then the business will take care of you."
What's your passion in business?
Today my passion is helping Firehouse Subs franchisees be the best operators. They are "salt of the earth" people investing their hard-earned money in a fantastic brand.
How do you balance life and work?
I have learned the hard way that you must make time for yourself and loved ones. I have a great business partner in my son Chris, who assists me with operating our successful business.
Drambuie liqueur and Häagen-Dazs Ice cream.
I have read 20-some books over the past 3 years. Near-Death Experiences was fascinating.
Chariots of Fire and Blazing Saddles.
What do most people not know about you?
I have been reading the Bible every day for about 30 years. I read it first thing in the morning.
When people are not honest with me.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
As a child, my mother bought me a toy kitchen to play with and make cupcakes. This was the start of my restaurant training.
This spring my wife Pam and I spent two weeks in England.
Person I'd most like to have lunch with:
U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia.
If you are not a fanatic with all aspects of your business, then you are just okay.
Management method or style:
I am a straight shooter. I do not sugarcoat my beliefs, feelings, or information. I rely on my 44 years in the restaurant business to guide my business decisions.
Helping franchisees understand the importance of managing all the details, big and small, of running a successful restaurant. How do others describe you? People would day I back up what I preach.
One thing I'm looking to do better:
Because my job as a Firehouse Subs area representative requires me to drive across Virginia and West Virginia, I hope to use some of my time in the car to listen to Audible books.
How I give my team room to innovate and experiment:
Working with a franchise brand, we have a solid foundation of best practices and operations. However, there is room for innovation and I do my best to encourage positive performance.
How close are you to operations?
I have a hands-on approach and work closely with each franchisee.
What are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor?
The excellent communication and marketing analysis Firehouse Subs provides.
What I need from vendors:
The most important things are on-time deliveries and accurate orders.
Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How?
This past January, Firehouse Subs began a national television advertising campaign. This has provided an excellent sales increase across the country.
How is social media affecting your business?
Social is a great way to reach new and existing guests. Firehouse has a full-time staff to work on taking advantage of multiple social media platforms as a way to engage with consumers and tell them about our brand.
How do you hire and fire?
As an area representative, my role is primarily working with franchisees to develop their businesses.
How do you train and retain?
We take pride in training our employees to provide heartfelt service to our guests. A customer relationship is of the utmost importance to our brand, so we make sure our employees embody this value. We do our best to recognize employees who take this to heart.
How do you deal with problem employees?
It's unfortunate when it happens, but the best way to deal with it is open communication and documentation of the incident.
Fastest way into my doghouse:
Trying to cover up an issue.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
In 2 parts: the number of new Firehouse Subs restaurants built, and average sales per unit.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
After four decades in the restaurant business, I am looking to slow down and enjoy more time with my family. So in 5 years I will transition my business to my son.
How is the economy in your regions affecting you, your employees, your customers?
As with most businesses, the slow economic recovery has had an impact on my territory of Virginia and West Virginia. Lately we have been encouraged by strong sales and growth.
Are you experiencing economic growth in your market?
Through our national advertising campaign we have increased exposure, and more brand awareness has brought in new guests to our restaurants and driven sales.
How do changes in the economy affect the way you do business?
You certainly have to be more goal-specific to stay ahead.
How do you forecast for your business?
Firehouse Subs sets system-wide goals each year. They provide support and resources to help us meet those goals.
What are the best sources for capital expansion?
The best source is to use any available capital from existing units and borrow only what you need from lenders.
Experience with private equity, local banks, national banks, and other institutions? Why/why not?
Regardless of where you borrow the development monies, know what the fees are and don't pay for services not guaranteed.
What are you doing to take care of your employees?
We provide a positive working environment, bonus opportunities, and healthcare for full-time employees.
How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, minimum wage, healthcare, etc.)?
We are fortunate not to have a lot of turnover, therefore training costs are kept at a minimum.
How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees?
Top-performing managers can qualify for a quarterly bonus. System-wide, Firehouse Subs recognizes outstanding employees with what we call the Awesome Award, which is a great incentive to our crew members.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
I plan to retire and have my son take over the business. Our business is strong and solid, so all the pieces to make this happen should come together.
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