Jacksonville-based Firehouse Subs sees at least three opportunities with the new testing and catering center it opened last week along Shad Road, four miles from its Kori Road headquarters.
One is to extend its reach into more corporate cafeterias, such as the “Firehouse Thursdays” at Allstate, when the company sets up equipment and serves its subs at the San Pablo-area insurance company.
A second is to expand its catering services beyond the customers it already serves through its 29 company-owned restaurants in Northeast Florida to include more events and nonprofit functions.
A third is to develop and test new products, such as the “King’s Hawaiian Pork & Slaw” sandwich that will be launched today in the Jacksonville, Phoenix and Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., markets for three months. If it makes the grade, it makes the menu.
There’s also the goal of merging some of those goals, such as experimenting with catering breakfast along with lunch and dinner, or supporting another new project – running a concession at the Arena next year, starting with the Jan. 10 Bob Seger concert. The center will also support Firehouse’s annual weeklong service at The Players Championship.
“We would like to build catering to a higher level,” said Meg Rose, director of company operations for Firehouse Subs, which owns or franchises 468 stores in 27 states and Puerto Rico.
The goal is to expand catering from 3.5 percent of annual sales to 10 percent, Rose said. For 2011, Firehouse projects sales of $285 million.
Firehouse has been catering boxed lunches and platters for groups from 10 to 4,000, including donated subs for benefit events. For example, it makes 1,800 bag lunches for volunteers at the annual 26.2 with Donna marathon, delivering the food to four drop-off locations at 4 a.m. the day of the event.
By the end of the year, Firehouse estimates it will have donated 40,000 meals.
Firehouse invested about $125,000 into the 2,400-square-foot kitchen, which includes a larger walk-in freezer, prep center, tables, equipment and a conference room.
It also assembled a team that includes Rose, Spinner Howland, Cindi Ross, Chadwick Sorensen and John Raulerson, the director of technical services who oversees research and development and also quality assurance.
Howland joined the company about two months ago as special events and catering manager after 11 years with Outback Steakhouse, where he focused on the chain’s service outside the restaurants and throughout the community.
Firehouse executives met Howland through the company’s title sponsorship of the Jacksonville Axemen, the professional rugby team that Howland founded, co-owns and coaches.
Ross works with the catering team, and Sorensen, younger brother to founders Chris and Robin Sorensen, who is catering manager.
On Friday, Rose, Ross and Howland were preparing for the center’s first catering jobs over the weekend. They were prepping boxes and preparing turkey so that the weekend team could assemble the subs for fresh deliveries.
Over the “opening” weekend, 80 platters and 130 box lunches were donated and about 15 platters were paid catering.
Teams will work whatever hours are needed to ensure delivery of fresh food.
“It allows us to grow our operations,” said Howland, who said “the potential is enormous.”