Jeff Smith 6 p.m., Feb. 27
Has the chain's expansion been too rapid?
I’ve watched Jersey Mike’s stores pop up in San Diego recently. First there was one, then two, now there’s eight. Eight! That’s insane. I just read an NYT article from 2000 and it indicated that the company had less than 200 stores. Now, with almost 600 outlets nationwide, Jersey Mike’s is one of the biggest sandwich chains in the country. Ed Bedford gave a brief history of the company in Feast back in April. I just had a chance to stop in at the Hillcrest store that’s opened since he wrote about it.
Even if I hadn’t been monitoring the rise of Jersey Mike’s in San Diego, I feel like i would have recognized it’s chain-ness right away. I always think it’s a little weird to see things like deli meats that are branded with the restaurant’s name. In reality, the meats in the case are recognizable cold cuts of middling quality--the perfectly squared hams and lobular turkeys that pay clever homage to the namesake meats--probably rebadged from some other producer. But the sense of uniformity is always a little daunting when walking into a franchise operation.
Still, I liked the menu, which restricted choice to a minimum of cold cuts and cheese steaks. Sometimes it’s nice not to be spoiled for choice. I went with the “original Italian” with ham, prosciuttini, cappacuolo, salami, pepperoni, and provolone cheese. I had them put everything on it (“Mike’s way”) because the veg behind the sneeze guard actually looked pretty good. I watched the staff slice the meats to order, which seems unnecessary as a guarantee of freshness in busy restaurant but is a nice gesture nonetheless, and fill the sandwich to capacity with shredded iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, oil, vinegar, and cherry pepper relish. The end result was massive and well worth the $7.50 price tag for a “regular” sized sub. I could have been filled by a $5 mini.
And what a sub it was! They may be a wicked gigantic chain, but Jersey Mike’s makes a great sub. It was superior to Subway or Quizno’s. The bread was better and the oily, tangy, salty vegetables were just plain awesome on top of the meat, of which there was neither too much nor too little. I wholeheartedly approve.
In retrospect, I’d prefer to order the roast beef in the future. It’s actually beef, roasted in the store, instead of the plastic-wrapped meatcake ham. I am reminded that subs aren’t necessarily very good for you, what with the super-salty meats and the massive serving of bread, but they’re an occasional lunchtime pleasure.
I’ve gotten away from where I wanted to go here, however, which was in the direction of Jersey Mike’s rapid expansion. I suspect that history and geography will work against the chain. For starters, it will be hard for Mike’s to make reliable inroads into the market that’s dominated by taco shops. Despite the fact that a significant portion of the city’s population grew up elsewhere and will relate to Mike’s subs in an almost guttural way, it’s going to be really hard to get us to put our burritos down long enough to eat a sub. Plus, the precedent for rapidly expanding, initially successful business almost always calls for some rollback after overzealous expansions. Quizno’s closed a bunch of stores a while back. Krispy Kreme tried to leave the South...and failed epically. Even Starbucks, the juggernaut of franchise foodstuffs, has had to partially withdraw from some markets when the local institutions proved too entrenched to be displaced. I’ll be honestly surprised if Jersey Mike’s doesn’t have to check their expansion in some radical fashion. I don’t know exactly why this happens to restaurant chains, but I suspect it’s a natural process. People are wildly excited about a concept at first, often because successful chains inject a kind of variety into extant markets, but then public enthusiasm wanes and the rest, as they say, is history. We shall see how Mike’s fares.