Blimpie®/Kahala Brands™ Franchisee Q&A Series – Constantine Stasinopoulos and Gary Tillett
October 18, 2016
Choosing the right franchise is imperative to making a sound business investment. With so many to choose from, getting insight from franchisees who have experienced working with a brand is the best way to gain insight to what it’s really like.
Today we’ll be talking with two co-owners of a Blimpie’s location in New Jersey, Constantine Stasinopoulos (CS) and Gary Tillett (GT). They’ll share their story and discuss what made them choose Blimpie. They talk about their experience with Kahala, Blimpie’s parent company, and local area developers. Not to mention they’ve got some tips and tricks to help out aspiring franchisees.
For more information, please visit BlimpieFranchise.com. The site features a free Blimpie Franchise Information Report, which is a downloadable document that provides detailed information on what it takes to open a Blimpie franchise.
Q: First off, congratulations for joining the Blimpie’s team last year. Let’s start there, why did you choose to become a part of the Blimpie family?
CS: Well, it’s a combination of different things. I’ve been involved with Blimpie for quite some time now. A family friend of mine, who actually owned our store prior to us buying it, had the store for almost 22 years. I grew up with the owner’s daughter, so off and on for 22 years I would help them out if they were short staffed. I knew what Blimpie was about – how big they are on fresh sliced and fresh baked. Unfortunately, the owner passed away suddenly. I had a background in the restaurant industry (I was actually working as an area developer for a different brand at the time) so I stepped in to help them out and keep the doors open. The lease was about to come up and the family asked me if I would be willing to take over the store. I came home, spoke with Gary [Tillett] and we spent some time thinking about it. We wanted to analyze our options so we checked with other franchises and honestly, nothing compared. We knew what Blimpie was and what they stand for and so we decided to move forward.
Q: You mentioned you have a background in the restaurant industry. Could you share a little more about your path in franchising and how it led back to Blimpie?
CS: Basically, I’m Greek, which means you get thrown into food one way or another. I grew up with my parents in the restaurant industry and I’ve always had a passion for it. I love cooking and I’m a chef by nature and by trade; I’ve always been a foodie. I went from being a bus boy to being a line cook to server to management, everything. It’s what I’ve always done. Blimpie is a great opportunity to still be in that industry but still have time to have a life. It’s a lot of work and it’s no joke, but I can still see my family and my kids and have some flexibility. If I need to take a morning off, I can do that.
Q: How about you, Gary? What’s your background? What got you into the restaurant business?
GT: I definitely don’t have the strong food background that Constantine has, but I do have a very strong business background. Constantine runs the store daily, it’s basically his full-time gig. I’m there nights, sometimes weekends and help out behind the scenes for the most part. I have a full time position in finance, so that takes up most of my time. I tend to help with things like email blasts or handling the daily deposit and other bookkeeping items.
CS: He’s the brains, I’m the muscle. And I love that both of us are still able to be in the store. It really makes a difference with the franchisees being in the store. It makes the interaction much more personal.
GT: I absolutely agree. The franchisee brings that passion to the store. We like to be there to make sure our employees are happy and that our customers are satisfied.
Q: It seems like you guys make a great team. As you both know, owning a business comes with a lot of responsibility and stress. One option to help limit both the stress and the financial burden is to partner with someone, as you all have. What’s it like having a partnership? Is that something you would recommend to others?
CS: You have to choose wisely. It’s just like any other relationship. It’s a commitment and it’s something both of you need to be willing to get into. This is a huge step for anyone who is involved and could really affect the relationship one way or another, regardless if they are your best friend, significant other or cousin. We are lucky in that we get along really well. We have a great balance and above all we respect each other. He knows that I have more knowledge on the restaurant industry and I know he has more knowledge on the financial aspect, so I’m not going to go to battle on something he is an expert on and he does the same for me. It’s a matter of respect.
GT: I agree with that. It absolutely has to be someone you have trust and faith in. Trusting any part of your business to someone else is hard. We have a good understanding that I understand more about the financial side of things while he’s got a better handle on the food side of things. With that said, of course there are times that we butt heads. Sometimes we just have different opinions and have our moment of disagreement, but so far we have been able to resolve and overcome all of our disagreements. We take time to look deeper at the issue and come up with a compromise that works best by putting our heads together.
If you’re looking to partner with someone, it’s important to set standards and expectations early on. It’s impossible for two people to split every aspect of the business perfectly equally.
CS: It’s nice to have someone who is there to help you when things go wrong. Sometimes employees call out or equipment breaks and it’s important to have everyone committed and willing to pitch in when needed. And we’re lucky that we have that in each other.
Q: Blimpie does a great job of supporting their franchisees, as you know. I understand you’ve been working with an area developer out there in the New Jersey. Let’s dig into that. Can you tell us what distinct advantage you’ve had with Blimpie’s amazing resources to help?
CS: Our area developer is Mike Sarao and he is phenomenal. In fact, his entire team is amazing. We actually did a full renovation of our store and they held our hands throughout the entire process. Our store was built in 1994 and it just really needed to be updated. We closed the store and did the entire reno in 9 days. It was really stressful and I wound up calling Mike every couple of hours with various questions and he was just phenomenal. I don’t think we could have done it without Mike and Blimpie’s ongoing support. Kahala basically gave us a paint by numbers and it helped us so much in getting our layout and coloring perfect!
Whenever something goes wrong or we need a little extra support Mike is there for us. I’ll send him a text or give him a call and he’s always very responsive and helpful. Mike’s role with us and our store’s growth is surreal. It’s unbelievable how helpful his entire team has been. When I’m out of town I can count on them to check on the store and make sure everything is ok. They help with marketing and even paid for an ad as a grand opening gift. Blimpie area developers really do want you to succeed and in my experience they will do whatever it takes to help you out. Every tool you could possibly need is there for you.
GT: Mike has been there from the very beginning. He has been our intermediary. He is the voice of the franchisee and helps us feel more connected with the Blimpie brand. He helps us deal with problems on a higher level – whether that be with Kahala (our parent company) or even our distributors.
He also helps with everything down to the tiny details. He’s helped us make sure our tiles are correctly placed, our store is decorated just right and even personally taught us the proper way to build our sandwiches. There’s never been a time when we’ve reached out to him for help and not gotten what we needed.
Q: So I understand you are now a franchisee of both Blimpie and Surf City Squeeze, which is also under the Kahala brand umbrella. What do you think that brings to your Blimpie location?
CS: Yes, that’s correct. We brought in Surf City Squeeze because we had the extra space to do so. We were racking our brains as to what we wanted to do. We knew we had a lot of great options under the Kahala brand but ultimately we settled on Surf City Squeeze and couldn’t be happier. Mike recommended it so we decided to check it out and absolutely loved it. It’s a real fruit smoothie company.
We wanted to have that second option for our customers. A lot of people are coming in and actually adding a smoothie to their order as a combo instead of a soda. Surf City was just a great opportunity to buy into; it fit perfectly into the space that we had, it worked perfectly for our demographic and the product is amazing. It was a no-brainer. We went forward with it and it has been very, very successful.
GT: We love that there are so many things you can do with smoothies. We offer fresh fruit smoothies, power smoothies where we add in supplemental nutrients and even dessert smoothies. Everything is very fresh and our customers seem to love it.
Q: To add Surf City Squeeze you had to go through this intense renovation process. There are a lot of franchisees out there who are on the fence due about doing a similar renovation process for a grand re-opening. Would you do this again? What kind of impact do you think the renovation has already had on your business?
CS: Yes, I would do it again, definitely. The renovation has done wonders. It’s the new buzz and the new place to be. There are kids hanging out there drinking smoothies and playing Pokémon. The renovation has been great.
Last year, when we purchased the location we were ranked 153. This year, we are ranked number 50 in terms of sales. That’s a huge jump and a lot of that had to do with our renovation. We made everything super fresh and super clean.
GT: Part of the challenge we faced was the age of the store and the facility itself. We are located in a strip mall and so we’re surrounded by nice, new restaurants. When people are making the choice on where they want to go, most people will pick the newest, cleanest and most modern place available. When we bought the location, the décor was kind of dated and didn’t give off the feel of “this is a great place to hang out.” We were losing a lot of the newer crowd. Once word got out and we did the grand re-opening with our new artwork, tiles, signs and more we moved up. It’s not just Blimpie anymore, there are smoothies too. People come in now just to get our smoothies and that’s helped our overall business. It opened up our ability to serve more people.
Q: Blimpie has been around for more than 50 years and generations keep coming back. If you could provide me one reason for why you think Blimpie is poised for continued success, what’s that one reason?
CS: Our parent company, Kahala, knows what the trends are and they are looking for the next best thing. They are constantly improving brand awareness. Not only reinforcing it for those who love Blimpie, but reaching out to new generations and giving them a chance to fall in love with it. Every 3 months there are new specials coming out and it’s ever-changing, but the tried and true classic sandwiches are still there.
GT: It’s bigger, better Blimpie. You still have those classic Blimpie subs, but now we have fun and exciting new flavors to offer too! It’s a combination of everything. Kahala is doing a phenomenal job of backing up franchisees and are doing a great job of keeping the classics while continuing to promote innovation. It’s a bigger, better Blimpie.