CIB cover
Listen to this article

To subscribe, email

Jimmy John Liautaud opened up about family and business in a wide-ranging interview with staff writer Ben Zigterman, whose story graces the cover of our current Central Illinois Business magazine. An excerpt:

Not all of Jimmy John’s products have worked out.

The company tried salads in the early 1990s at a shop in Lombard, but they slowed down the process and the garlic taste from the baked croutons stuck in the oven.

It also tested toasted subs around 2014 at the Jimmy John’s on North Prospect Avenue, which founder Jimmy John Liautaud said tasted great, but the toasters made the store smell like smoke, and it would take 78 seconds instead of 30 to make a sandwich.

Customers also insisted the toasted subs be delivered, even when they were told they’d be cold by the time they arrived, Liautaud said.

“Guess what they complained about when it was delivered?” he said. “That it’s cold.”

So the company has kept its menu simple, a lesson Liautaud said he learned from his father. James Liautaud was an inventor who worked with plastic injection molds for antennas and radios.

“He was the master of the 15-ton press,” his son said. While other factories had a variety of presses, his father’s company only had to keep spare parts for the 15-ton press. They became experts in repairing and operating them, and it helped keep his margins higher than his competitors, Liautaud said.

He was “so good at doing so much with so little,” Liautaud said.

When his father lent him $25,000 to open the first Jimmy John’s in 1983 in Charleston, he was told to keep it simple, Liautaud said, “just like his 15-ton presses.”

Liautaud sold 28 percent of his business in 2007 to Weston Presidio, and in 2016, he sold a majority stake to Roark Capital.

Last year, he sold his 2,800-location business to Inspire Brands — the parent company of Buffalo Wild Wings, Sonic Drive-In and Arby’s — and Liautaud became an adviser to the brand.

He said he’s working on losing weight, and can now spend more time on his various side businesses; he farms 7,500 acres and owns two wine brands and about 45 hotels.

He is also advising President Donald Trump as part of his economic revival team.

And he’s still in charge of Jimmy John’s taste and flavor, tasting all its food each week.

During taste tests of a cookie currently in development, Liautaud has always been able to tell which ones have Ghirardelli chocolate and which have an off-brand chocolate, said Lisa Garber, one of Jimmy John’s executives.

“I can discern almost any imperfection, and I can discern different ingredients,” Liautaud said.

And he’s optimistic about the future of Jimmy John’s, saying he expects there to eventually be 10,000 to 15,000 stores around the world.

“Jimmy John’s is just getting started,” he said.