Firehouse Subs working to speed up service, testing a new, faster toaster

Restaurant Brands International’s CEO says it plans to add 800 restaurants by 2028.

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Firehouse Subs rates highly in customer satisfaction surveys, according to parent company Restaurant Brands International Inc.

However, the company is hoping initiatives to speed up service will bring more satisfaction and increase sales.

At a Feb. 15 investor meeting at the New York Stock Exchange, RBI Chief Executive Josh Kobza said it takes 2 minutes and 45 seconds for Firehouse’s steamers and another 90 seconds to toast the bread for its sub sandwiches.

“We know this is too long and have been testing new equipment that can significantly reduce wait times while enhancing food quality,” Kobza said.

One of the innovations is a toaster that cuts the time in half, which is being tested in Firehouse’s Jacksonville-area restaurants, he said.


The company also is testing a steamer that takes only 45 seconds and improves the quality, Kobza said.

“While it’s still in the early days, I’m really encouraged to see the benefits they’re delivering,” he said.

Firehouse also is working on its performance outside of its restaurants.

“We also know digital ordering can help improve service times,” Kobza said.

Firehouse introduced a new app for online ordering last year and increased digital ordering from 20% of sales to 40%, he said.

“These improvements matter and they show up in sales,” he said.

The investor meeting came two days after RBI reported fourth-quarter and year-end financial results.

The company said total 2023 sales at Firehouse restaurants rose 7.1% to $1.19 billion and sales at restaurants open for more than one year rose 3.8%.

Adjusted operating income in the Firehouse division rose by $5 million to $38 million.

It was the second full year of ownership for Toronto-based RBI since it acquired Jacksonville-based Firehouse Restaurant Group Inc. for $1 billion in December 2021.

“This has already been a great acquisition,” Kobza said.

He said average sales volume at Firehouse restaurants increased from about $900,000 to $1 million in the past two years.

The number of Firehouse restaurants grew by 23 last year to 1,265, and RBI officials laid out ambitious growth plans for the chain at the investor meeting.

Kobza said the company hopes to add 800 new restaurants by 2028 and to increase annual growth to 300 restaurants a year.

Firehouse has launched initiatives to bring in new franchisees, including a program announced in January to give $100,000 in cash to veterans and first responders to help them open their first restaurants.

The chain was founded in Jacksonville in 1994 by brothers and former firefighters Chris and Robin Sorensen.

Firehouse said it costs $400,000 to $500,000 to build and open a new restaurant.

Firehouse is the smallest chain owned by RBI, which also operates the Tim Hortons, Burger King and Popeyes brands.

With more than 31,000 restaurants among its four chains, RBI reported total sales rose 12.2% in 2023 to $42.9 billion.

Adjusted earnings rose by 10 cents a share to $3.24.

Dun & Bradstreet increases earnings

Dun & Bradstreet Holdings Inc. reported adjusted fourth-quarter earnings rose by 6.7% to $139.8 million, or 32 cents a share.

The Jacksonville-based business data company increased revenue by 5.1%, adjusted for foreign exchange rates, to $630.4 million.

Dun & Bradstreet CEO Anthony Jabbour. 

“We finished off 2023 with not only our strongest quarter of the year, but our strongest quarter since going public,” CEO Anthony Jabbour said in a Feb. 15 conference call with analysts.

Dun & Bradstreet is projecting 2024 revenue to grow between 3.7% and 5.4% to $2.4 billion to $2.44 billion.

It expects adjusted earnings of $1 to $1.04 per share, compared with $1 in 2023.

“We expect another year of accelerated organic growth, increased earnings and continued deleveraging through enhanced profitability and improving free cash flow while balancing near-term financial performance with the proper level of investment in new solution development, enhancements to existing solutions, back-office upgrades and gen AI (generative artificial intelligence) initiatives,” Jabbour said.

GEE Group revenue tumbles by 26%

GEE Group Inc. reported revenue for its first quarter ended Dec. 31 fell 26% to $30.6 million after the Jacksonville-based staffing company benefited from a post-pandemic bounce the previous year.

The company had an adjusted net loss of $854,000, or 1 cent a share, in the quarter.

“We faced significant difficulties in the fiscal 2024 first quarter ended December 31, 2023, mainly stemming from economic and labor market instability and uncertainty,” CEO Derek Dewan said in a Feb. 14 conference call, according to a company transcript.

“The prior fiscal 2023 first quarter results were above normal led by record high demand for direct hire placement services in (calendar) 2022 driven by the post-COVID recovery bounce at that time,” Dewan said.

“Our performance still compares and tracks consistently with our industry peers as we all are facing similar challenges,” he said.

“The challenges being faced by the U.S. staffing industry, as a whole, and including us, are expected to continue through at least the first half of calendar 2024.”

Dewan said GEE Group in December engaged investment banking firm DC Advisory to assist with a “review of strategic alternatives which includes capital allocation strategies, mergers, acquisitions, and others, including future share repurchases.”

The company drew the attention last year of two activist shareholders, Red Oak Partners LLC, which owns 9.12% of its stock, and Goldenwise Capital Group Ltd., which owns 5.14%.

GEE Group reached an agreement with Red Oak in August to add two directors to its board.

Dewan said the company expects an initial report from DC Advisory in the coming days.

“I want to assure everyone that our sole focus now and into the immediate future is to manage through this downturn with the objective of minimizing its negative impacts on our businesses and preparing for an eventual recovery,” he said.

Dewan said GEE Group’s balance sheet is strong, putting the company in a good position in the current economy.

“We also continue to believe that our stock is undervalued and has substantial room to grow,” he said.

CSX raises quarterly cash dividend

CSX Corp. announced Feb. 14 its board of directors approved an increase in its quarterly cash dividend from 11 cents a share to 12 cents.

This is the third straight year CSX has raised the dividend by a penny per share.

Shoe Carnival makes second acquisition

Shoe Carnival Inc. made its second acquisition of a small footwear chain since late 2021, announcing Feb. 13 it acquired Wisconsin-based Rogan Shoes Inc.

Rogan operates 28 work and family footwear stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois.

Shoe Carnival paid $45 million to buy the company, funded with cash on hand.

The Evansville, Indiana-based company controlled by former Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver made its first acquisition in December 2021, buying 21-store Shoe Station Inc., for $67 million.

Weaver took Shoe Carnival public in 1993 and expanded that chain without acquisitions before the Shoe Station deal.

The company now has 373 Shoe Carnival and 28 Shoe Station stores. The Rogan stores will be integrated into the Shoe Station brand.

The Rogan stores include Shoe Carnival’s first locations in Minnesota, expanding its reach to 36 states and Puerto Rico.

“Our growth strategy is focused on becoming the nation’s leading family footwear retailer through a combination of organic growth initiatives and M&A activity that expands our geographic footprint and customer base,” CEO Mark Worden said in a news release.

Weaver is Shoe Carnival chairman and its largest shareholder. He and his wife, Delores, control 32.8% of Shoe Carnival’s stock.

Shoe Carnival said sales for the fiscal year ended Feb. 3 were $1.176 billion, lower than fiscal 2022 sales of $1.262 billion but at the high end of its expectations.

The company will report final results in March but said fiscal 2023 earnings will be in line with its expectations of $2.65 to $2.75 a share, down from $3.96 in fiscal 2022.

Shoe Carnival said the Rogan acquisition is expected to be accretive to fiscal 2024 earnings, generating about $84 million in sales and $10 million in operating income.

Cox Media, DirecTV reach agreement

Cox Media Group and DirecTV averted a sports bar disaster by reaching a new carriage agreement hours before the Super Bowl on Feb. 11.

But while Cox operates Jacksonville CBS affiliate WJAX TV-47, which broadcast the game, its dispute with DirecTV did not impact that station.

Cox operates 14 stations, including WJAX and Jacksonville Fox network affiliate WFOX TV-30.

Stations owned by Cox, including WFOX, were pulled off DirecTV on Feb. 3 when the two sides couldn’t reach a new contract agreement.

Cox owns WFOX and while it operates WFOX and WJAX together, it does not own WJAX.

The two Jacksonville stations have operated together since 1995, when FCC rules allowed station owners to operate, but not own, a second station under a shared services agreement.

The Jacksonville stations have been sold several times since then but revised FCC rules would not allow the new owners to buy both stations because they are both ranked in the top four in the local market.

WJAX has been owned separately by a former Cox executive while the company provides operating services to the station. So WJAX remained on DirecTV while WFOX went dark Feb. 3.

Cox’s station group includes CBS affiliates in the Dayton, Ohio, and Seattle markets. 

Since most sports bars use DirecTV to show games, that may have kept establishments in those markets from broadcasting the Super Bowl. But the agreement was reached and the stations immediately restored to the satellite service the afternoon of the game.

The two sides did not announce terms of the agreement.



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