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Jax Daily Record Friday, Aug. 17, 200712:00 PM EST

Submarine sandwiches and City Hall

by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

by Max Marbut

Staff Writer

What do submarine sandwiches and City Council have in common?

Stephen Joost is the answer and both jobs have given him a great deal of respect for the American Dream.

Born and raised in Jacksonville, Joost graduated from The Bolles School in 1980. Then it was off to Tulane University to earn a degree in accounting.

When he returned home, Joost was one of Florida’s newest CPAs when he went to work for Touche Ross & Co. (now Deloitte & Touche) before entering the corporate food service industry as the Loop Restaurants’ controller in 1990.

Three years later, Joost began his quest for the American Dream when he decided to strike out on his own and open an independent CPA firm. He was still looking for his first client when he got a phone call from a guy he grew up with – and who was also the manager of the Loop in San Marco. It was Robin Sorensen, who with his brother and fellow firefighter, Chris, was planning to take what he learned at the Loop and start a restaurant of his own.

The brothers asked Joost to meet them at a popular casual restaurant in Baymeadows and talk about him keeping the books for their new start-up.

“I didn’t have a single client, but I didn’t want them to know that, so I showed up in a suit and tie,” Joost recalled. “At the end of our three-hour meeting, Robin and Chris went into the bathroom for what seemed like a half-hour. When they came back, the check had arrived – and three guys can go through about $60 worth of chicken wings in three hours – so we kept pushing it back and forth to each other. I finally told them if they weren’t going to sign my contract they would have to pay the bill because I didn’t have any money. Chris was working for the fire department at the time, so he paid the bill because he was the only one of us who had any money.”

Joost said they struck a hand-shake deal in the parking lot, “and I did their accounting for free to help out some old friends.”

It didn’t take long for Firehouse Subs to take off and today, 13 years after that handshake, the chain has grown to close to 300 restaurants.

“In the early days, in addition to doing the books, I’d go to the restaurants and put on an apron and toast bread for the sandwiches. The three of us installed all the fixtures, the shelves and TVs in the first 20 stores. I’ve worn every hat.

“Looking back on it those were the hardest times but the best because it gave us a chance to build our friendship. We just decided there was no way we were going to fail. It was a make-or-break situation and we had our backs against the wall. Every nickel counted but it made it mean even more because we built it with our blood, sweat and tears.”

Joost said today he’s the third-largest stockholder behind the Sorensen brothers and his role in the business has changed.

“Now I screen prospective franchisees, set up accounting for all the new franchises and supervise the corporation.”

Joost believes his financial background will allow him to better serve as a Council member during the current budget challenges.

“It’s gone from looking at how much we can add to looking at how much we can save,” he said.

The self-described “fiscally conservative Reagan Republican” also said what the City is facing now will be nothing compared to the situation facing the consolidated government if Florida’s voters go to the polls in January and approve even more sweeping changes to how property taxes are levied.

“If the constitutional amendment passes, it will make this budget year look like a simple exercise. I also think if it passes, 15 years from now people will be taxed more than if we left property taxes alone due to diversification without caps.

“But no matter what, it won’t be the end of the world,” said Joost.

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