Firehouse Subs executives

The Wild West of Nontraditional Development

Captured Audience Spaces

Firehouse Subs is targeting nontraditional locations. To-date the Jacksonville, Fla.-based chain operates in four airports, five college campuses, and at Baptist Methodist Hospital in Jacksonville.

“There’s a growing need for branded restaurants, especially on college campuses,” says Steve LaBostrie, senior manager of nontraditional locations. “Students identify well with brands, and it’s an appealing option outside university cafeterias.”

These locations are smaller (600 to 800 square feet) than Firehouse Subs’ traditional locations (1,400 to 2,500 square feet), giving the growing brand greater flexibility. To fit in that small space, the dining area has been eliminated and the menu abbreviated, which means storage space is also significantly reduced. There are no changes to kitchen equipment.

Only the best-selling menu items are served in nontraditional locations and instead of offering three sub sizes, only one is available. “We need to run these operations lean so they’re more efficient, profitable and offer the best guest experience possible,” LaBostrie points out.

Another advantage to the brand is “the visibility it’s going to give us,” he adds, “It helps open up our brand to new customers. What we’ve found in airports is we’re appealing to existing customers as well as people who’ve never heard of us before. Then when they get home, they look for the closest Firehouse Subs to them.”

The nontraditional locations are all licensed, which means they’re mostly operated by foodservice contractors, LaBostrie points out. Firehouse Subs employees train those staff members and check in with them periodically.

Firehouse Subs will be focusing on opening traditional stores in the future, but with a strong emphasis on nontraditional venues that could go beyond airports, colleges and healthcare and into other locations like travel plazas and casinos.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Tampa, Fla.-based Tijuana Flats has opened locations in the football stadiums at both Florida State University and the University of Florida — the concept’s first nontraditional locations. Coming up in the first half of 2021 will be two more sports locations at these universities.

CEO Brian Wright thought long and hard about whether to open the concession stands this year, “but we felt like getting them off the ground and seeing how well they work and what challenges we would encounter while testing with a limited audience,” he says. “We saw this as a kind of practice year.” Plus, with the stands only being open when there are games, the investment is low, he points out.

The Florida State location is a self-operated location; the University of Florida unit is licensed, run by the university’s foodservice contractor, but both look the same from the outside, he says; the differences are on the financial and administrative side.

Tijuana Flats had to make changes to be able to operate in a stadium. Wright cut the menu by 60% to 70%, opting to serve only bestsellers and eliminating anything that took too long to cook. And, the food has to stay warm while patrons return to their seats, so he switched to a different style of packaging.

At the stadiums, there was a limited kitchen, but Wright decided to only do a partial build-out during this first test year and then revamp them next year.

It was important to Wright that each location look like Tijuana Flats’ new prototype that rolled out in late 2020. “It’s very modern, very bright. So, as we move forward, we want to take on the look of our prototype, so the brand is front and center,” he says. “We have a captured audience and these locations are so great for expanding our brand. Thousands of people might be walking by.”

Opening in Florida schools was “logical,” Wright says, since they’re close to the concept’s headquarters and are in the state where it has the most brand recognition. He’s also looking into airports — especially Tampa’s — which he says “will help us get our foot in the market to get into larger and larger spaces.”

Wright will be expanding Tijuana Flats’ presence in nontraditional locations while continuing to grow traditional corporate and franchised stores. “We have such high hopes for nontraditional,” he says. “Having those captured audiences is key.” The traditional stores will support the nontraditional locations, he points out, and serve as an anchor store. Franchisees benefit from the brand exposure. 

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