Duelling U.S. sandwich brands Jimmy John’s and Jersey Mike’s to expand in Canada

Jimmy John's

A battle of the sandwich brands is materializing as a pair of U.S. sub companies announce big plans for Canada.

Inspire Brands announced Wednesday that its Jimmy John’s banner would make its first foray outside the U.S. this year with a restaurant in the Greater Toronto Area and more to follow across the country.

Meanwhile, Redberry Restaurants said its Jersey Mike’s Subs brand, which already has two locations in Ontario, plans to open more than 300 Canadian restaurants in the coming years.

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Both companies are known for their customizable submarine-style sandwiches, which are served with sides like chips and cookies. At Jimmy John’s, diners can also opt for wraps or an unwich, a sandwich which uses lettuce in lieu of a bun.

They will join a slew of homegrown and foreign sandwich companies with years of operating in Canada, creating a fight for dining out dollars.

Joanne McNeish, an associate professor at Toronto Metropolitan University specializing in marketing, said the news is “exciting” for the Canadian market.

“Consumers are always curious about a new offering, so this provides two more choices,” she wrote in an email.

“But — and for me it’s a big one — will these two have enough appeal for the Canadian palate?”

Jimmy John’s and Jersey Mike’s closest rivals will likely be Subway, also a U.S. chain, Toronto-born Mr. Sub, which is run by the Thai Express- and Manchu Wok-owning MTY Group, and Firehouse Subs and Tim Hortons, which share a parent company with Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and Burger King.

Coffee giant Starbucks and U.K. café brand Pret A Manger, which has been expanding in Canada through A&W, are also players in Canada’s fast food sandwich market, though both focus on more artisanal ingredients.

McNeish feels Jimmy John’s and Jersey Mike’s will need to spend heavily to build the necessary brand awareness.

“They are up against some formidable competitors who will not hesitate to fight back,” she said.

“Jimmy John’s has an American sensibility which they may or may not think to modify for the Canadian marketplace.”

Jimmy John’s, which also announced an international franchise agreement for Latin America on Wednesday, has yet to share where its first location will be or how many stores it hopes to open.

“We won’t publicly announce the number, but…we’re approaching 3,000 in the U.S. and we have amazing runway to grow, so you could easily do that and more in Canada over a long period of time,” Michael Haley, president and managing director of international for Jimmy John’s parent company Inspire Brands.

Inspire Brands, which is also behind Arby’s, Baskin-Robbins, Buffalo Wild Wings, Dunkin’ and Sonic, will use Canadian franchisor Foodtastic Inc. to launch Jimmy John’s in Canada.

Foodtastic has more than 1,100 restaurants across brands including Milestones, Freshii and Quesada.

Asked about what the Canadian Jimmy John’s menu will look like, Haley said, “You want to be able to go to a Jimmy John’s in Canada and feel like you’re at a Jimmy John’s.”

“But we also want to ensure that we make those changes that are needed to resonate with the Canadian consumer.”

Jimmy John’s research revealed more than 60 per cent of Canadian consumers prefer a hot sandwich, so the chain will offer the option to have a sandwich toasted. Jersey Mike’s offers hot grilled sandwiches in addition to cold ones.

“There’s just little tweaks, sometimes even the name of the sandwich can be adjusted to resonate and just have a better translation,” Haley said.

Jimmy John’s was started in 1983, when Jimmy John Liataud finished high school and his father gave him an ultimatum: start a business or head off to the military. Liataud considered a hotdog business, but due to equipment costs landed on sandwiches.

Roughly a decade after the first Jimmy John’s opened in Charleston, Ill., Liataud turned to the franchisee model to expand the business.

Roark Capital Group bought a majority stake in the company in September 2016, but by 2019, it was sold to Inspire Brands. Liataud sold his remaining stake in Jimmy John’s in 2019. A year later, Inspire bought Dunkin.

Asked whether Inspire Brands will bring some of its other companies, including burger and fries giant Sonic, to Canada, Haley said, “We do see that many or most of our brands can and could resonate in Canada.”

“Stay tuned on Sonic. I think that will be our sixth brand to come outside the U.S. and we’re not too far off working through today what the international adaptation of the brand could look like.”

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