Jimmy John Liautaud

Know your numbers, get the facts, then outwork the world!


Jimmy John Liautaud is the founder of Jimmy John’s, a sandwich chain that prides itself on “Freaky Fresh” ingredients and “Freaky Fast” service. In January 1983, he opened his first store. Through hard work, tenacity, good taste buds, and an eye for detail, Liautaud grew his business from one shop in Charleston, Illinois to 2,800 locations across the United States.

Jimmy created an entrepreneurial family environment. The success of the company is a direct reflection of Jimmy’s simple, real, and genuine approach to serving his franchisees, employees, and customers. He paid for performance, and by aligning his goals with his teammates, together they built this brand and were proportionately rewarded.

Liautaud and the company have received many awards over the years. In 2018, Jimmy was voted into The Horatio Alger Association. He also earned the Franchise Times’ Dealmaker of the Year Award that year. Earlier awards include the Golden Chain Award in 2012, Top Franchise of 2015 by Entrepreneur, and #1 Franchise by Forbes in 2016. He was a Crain’s 40 Under 40 recipient back in the day and an Illinois Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year recipient as well.

Jimmy John’s is now a part of the Inspire Brands family of restaurants, this includes Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, and SONIC Drive-In. Liautaud is an advisor to Jimmy John’s, and he serves at the pleasure of Inspire Brand’s CEO. Liautaud holds investments in multiple bar and restaurant brands, wineries, hotels, high-performance outdoor gear, and real estate. Jimmy is a public speaker and he is a mentor to many up-and-coming entrepreneurs.

His philanthropic effort over the last few years has been directed towards our men and women of military service, specifically, Tomahawk Charitable Solutions, the Green Beret Foundation, and Folds of Honor. In 2017, Liautaud, his wife, Leslie, and their three children set up the Liautaud Family Foundation which contributes to various charities, both locally and nationally, to support the military, education, health, and the arts.

Where did the idea for Jimmy John’s come from?

It started as a hot dog stand that evolved into a sandwich shop. The evolution came as a result of me not having the bucks for all the equipment I needed for the Chicago style hot dog stand. I had $25,000 to work with. Once I realized how costly the fryers, hoods, and equipment were, I knew I couldn’t afford it. After I realized that, I started looking at options and sandwiches were doable. Meat slicer and a refrigerator and, boom, I’m in business. I learned to bake bread, I visited many sandwich shops, and came up with four subs I liked. The original store at Eastern Illinois University had the four subs on the menu and 25 cent cokes with no ice, that’s it. Year one we did $150,000 in sales and made $40,000 in profit. My dad was my partner, we split the profit. I bought him out two years later and I became the sole proprietor.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I go to bed at about 9 pm and wake up about 4:30. I typically work until 7am, then I work out, shower, and hit it again. I’m a workaholic. It’s genetic.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I see it, I do the homework on it, I make it, and I execute it. It’s called “make it happen”. People either make it happen or they tell stories about why it didn’t happen. I make it happen.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Quality is continuing to be the norm, not the exception. Time is the new currency. Combining speed and quality and delivering it to customers is very exciting as it fits Jimmy John’s sweet spot. Inspire Brands taking over control was a brilliant move on their part and ours, as Inspire Brands has the technology and data piece that we miss. It’s a perfect marriage that couldn’t be scripted any better.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I do more homework than most. When the homework is done, the answers are obvious. Any memos or emails to me must fit on a single sheet of paper. Meetings can’t last longer than 30 minutes. We don’t allow dinners, gifts, tickets, golf games, travel or anything from our vendors. It confuses the mission of being the highest quality, low cost provider to the franchisee. It falsely obliges executives to vendors. It’s not a good thing but seems to be the norm, I don’t allow it. Worst news first best news last, make a deal keep a deal, and lead by example. Set the pace for email replies, set the tone for off work response time. Bottom line is, if you do the things you need to do when you need to do them, then someday you can do the things you want to do when you want to do them.

What advice would you give your younger self?

The best time to change and do something is NOW.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Once you make it as a top executive, most assume you don’t have to do the dirty work anymore. Quite the opposite is true. The best top execs do more dirty work and are ready and willing to jump in and clean the dirty toilet first.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Know your numbers, get the facts, then outwork the world!

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

I paid every bill the day I got the bill from the day I started, and I knew my cash balance every day. I live in financial reality. No debt, I own everything I have.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I sold stores to the wrong people. In 2002, I had 160 units open and 70 were failing. After turning those stores around, I realized the importance of telling potential buyers the hard truth about the restaurant business. I told them it’s a 24/7/365 business – no weekends, no evenings, no birthdays – it’s a lifestyle and its very, very hard. Those people that accepted that reality ended up being very successful franchisees. It was a hard lesson.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

When your homework is done, the answers are obvious. If you have a great product, and if you know your costs, and you outwork the competition you cannot fail. There is no easy path to a million or a billion. One foot in front of the other.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I tipped my waitress 100 bucks last Sunday at the Super Bowl. She was freaky fast and always had a can do attitude!

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Uber. Right here, right now, let’s go, and cheap.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Leadership and the One Minute Manager. It explains how to effectively lead a team, it teaches one how make change. Why? Because we all need help and we all can use tips on how to be more effective. Effective Leadership is illogical and counterintuitive. This is a really good book. All my managers and execs read this book.

What is your favorite quote?

If you do what you did, you get what you got!

Key Learnings:

  • “Make it happen”
  • Time is the new currency
  • Know your numbers