CHAMPAIGN — Since he started his sandwich-making enterprise in 1983 with a modest shop near the Eastern Illinois campus in Charleston, Jimmy John Liautaud has opened more than 2,800 restaurants in the United States. And within the next year or so, Jimmy John's is expected to open its first international franchise, setting up shop north of the border.
"It's a no-brainer to go into Toronto," Liautaud said on Friday. "We'll be in Canada pretty soon. In the next 12-18 months, you'll probably start to see our first stores in Toronto."
Canadian locations will be the first abroad for Jimmy John's, which is headquartered on Fox Drive in Champaign, but Liautaud says it's not the first time he's flirted with the idea of going international. He was approached a few years ago by a franchisee in Australia about placing 1,000 stores in that country, but because of time and distance, he opted against it.
"There's so much to do here in America. I'm spread thin," he said. "This has all been organic, and I think I've been peaking for a long time."
How many locations and exactly where they'll be in Canada, he said, remains to be seen.
"We have people that want to do it, and we've agreed that we want to do it, so we're just going to do it," he said. "I don't want to talk to my competitors about where I'm going and what I'm doing."
In addition to the international expansion, Jimmy John's continues to thrive and grow rapidly domestically. Liautaud says they open anywhere from 10 to 25 stores in the U.S. per month, and currently there are about 1,200 new stores in development domestically. The expectation is that in coming months, Jimmy John's will be operating in excess of 4,000 locations nationwide.
And there are no plans to slow down any time soon.
"We're selling; we're opening; we're training. It's a machine that's a continual journey," he said.
And with more than 14,000 McDonald's franchises operating in the United States, Liautaud feels there's plenty of room for as many as 12,000 Jimmy John's shops out there.
"I want to build this business as long as the customers will keep eating my sandwiches," he said. "I just want it to be real and have it be organic. So whatever that natural equilibrium of stores is, that's what we'll do."
With the number of restaurants continuing to grow, so too does the Jimmy John's Corp. The headquarters is home to approximately 100 employees, and across its parking lot to the north, where the company trains new franchise owners and staff, Liautaud acquired some space in the adjacent building to essentially double the number of folks who can train there to more than 225.
And since he and wife Leslie moved to Champaign in December 1999, along with the Jimmy John's operation, Liautaud has seen the city grow and thrive along with his own business.
"It's amazing, it's unbelievable. The number of new restaurants is unbelievable. New construction, new high rises is incredible. I would have never guessed it," he said. "I would have never guessed it, it's really quite an economy and lots of entrepreneurs in this town. It's unbelievable."