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Jax Daily Record Thursday, May 2, 201312:00 PM EST

Firehouse Subs' philanthropy correlates to better business

by: Mark Basch Contributing Writer

Hopefully, your company engages in charitable causes for altruistic reasons.

But if that isn't enough, there are tangible financial benefits to philanthropy, according to Don Fox, chief executive officer of Firehouse of America LLC, the Jacksonville-based company that operates the Firehouse Subs restaurant chain.

Speaking Wednesday at the GrayRobinson Community Leader Forum at the The River Club, Fox provided data demonstrating that Firehouse's most successful restaurants — in terms of sales — also are the most successful in terms of giving.

He said the top 25 restaurants in the chain raised an average of $15,840 for the company's Public Safety Foundation last year, and produced average sales of $850,562.

Meanwhile, the bottom 25 restaurants raised an average of only $871 for the foundation, and their total sales averaged $665,470 last year.

"They are franchises that are not engaged in the spirit of philanthropy," Fox said.

"The major variable (between the top and bottom performance) is their commitment to the community," he said.

The Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, which provides life-saving equipment, disaster assistance and educational opportunities for first responders and public safety organizations, is a major part of the company's culture, Fox said.

But Firehouse's success also can be attributed to the two other attributes of the culture: the quality of its food and service.

Industry consulting firm Technomic Inc. surveyed consumers and found Firehouse was the top-rated U.S. chain in the fast casual restaurant category.

In addition to its top overall rating, Firehouse finished first in 19 of the 51 metrics rated by Technomic, Fox said.

He said Firehouse's business model succeeds by not focusing on profits, but on the sales at individual restaurants.

"Average unit volume is the most important metric that we focus on," Fox said.

Firehouse, started by brothers Chris and Rob Sorensen with one Jacksonville restaurant in 1994, has grown into a chain of 612 restaurants in 36 states and Puerto Rico.

The company is in the fourth year of a 10-year plan to reach 2,000 restaurants by 2020, Fox said. It expects to reach 715 restaurants by the end of this year, owned mainly by 183 individual franchisees. Thirty restaurants are company-owned.

The Sorensens have been very cautious about franchise growth over the years, and never actually intended to operate a nationwide chain, Fox said.

"Their vision was nothing more than to open that first restaurant in 1994," he said.

However, Fox said the brothers had a very smart vision on how to operate the restaurant. Instead of selling turkey and ham or corned beef and pastrami subs, they branded them as the Hook & Ladder and the New York Steamer. Fox believes those names have helped the success of the restaurants.

"Robin and Chris were very wise about this," he said.

"They branded their food from the very beginning."

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