Uncut with Jay Cutler: Jimmy John Talks Humble Beginnings and the Growth of His Sandwich Empire

by Chris Haney
(via Uncut with Jay Cutler)

On Wednesday morning, another episode of Uncut with Jay Cutler hit your favorite podcast streaming service. This time around, the former NFL quarterback welcomed his friend, sandwich chain founder Jimmy John Liautaud, to the show.

Jay and Jimmy John live near each other in Nashville, Tennessee, so the two have gotten to know each other well over the years. The Pro Bowl QB joked that this would be the easiest podcast he’s ever hosted. Jimmy is so energetic and such a good storyteller that Cutler knew he wouldn’t have to do much to keep the conversation going.

“Jimmy is amazing, and loves to talk, and will be entertaining as hell,” Jay Cutler amusingly said as he introduced the famous businessman. “I’m probably going to say, ‘Jimmy, tell the story’ and an hour later I’m going to say, ‘Thanks for coming out.'”

Jay Cutler’s assessment of his friend was spot on. Jimmy John has a fascinating story that he dives right into on the podcast. He started from almost nothing as a young man before turning his local sandwich business into a booming national franchise.

Jimmy opens up about coming up with the idea for the business after partying one weekend. He talks about the sandwich shop’s humble beginnings as a local source of food for college kids. He also touches on the sandwich chain blowing up and becoming a multi-billion dollar business along with everything else in between on this week’s episode of Uncut with Jay Cutler.

The Ultimatum: Join the Military or Start a Business

Coming out of high school in Illinois, Jimmy John didn’t have many options since he graduated second to last in his class. College wasn’t an option because of his poor academic record. But his parents weren’t going to just let him live at home after graduation. Since he comes from a military family, his dad suggested that he join the Army, but he had other plans.

Jimmy wasn’t too fond of the idea of joining the military. His father knew he’d talked about opening up a Chicago hot dog stand, so he offered Jimmy a business deal instead. Jimmy’s dad would loan him $25,000 to create a Chicago hot dog business. Jimmy John would own 52% and his dad would own 48%. However, if the business failed, Jimmy had to promise to join the Army for at least two years.

The only issue though is that Jimmy John needed more than $40,000 for all the equipment to begin a proper hot dog business. He then revealed to host Jay Cutler that he came up with the idea for a sandwich shop after a drunken weekend hanging out at Southern Illinois University. Not only would a sandwich shop need much less equipment, but it would cost much less money. Within six months of graduating high school in 1982, Jimmy opened up his first sandwich shop between three college bars in January 1983. As they say, the rest was history.

Jimmy John Talks Overcoming a Tough Childhood, Bullying

Like many other kids growing up, Jimmy John had a tough time during grade school. He didn’t make good grades, his family went through two bankruptcies, he suffered from dyslexia, and he was always picked on because of his weight.

“It was brutal. My childhood was horrible,” Jimmy John explained to Jay Cutler. “We had a lot of love in the house, but it was tough. And it’s hard when you get bullied. It just sucks.”

Yet within months of graduating high school, Jimmy found his purpose. He personally worked day and night in his shop making sandwiches with little help. While he thought he was in over his head at first, after a few weeks he got the hang of things and gained a renewed confidence in himself and his business.

“By week four open to close, I’m like jammin’. I know my customers, I know who they are. It gave me purpose and they were thanking me. They were excited to see me, I was excited to see them. And for the first time, I had something that I could do,” Jimmy John recalled.

From One Shop to a Nationwide Sandwich Empire

Within three years, Jimmy John paid his dad back and bought him out of the business. Not long after, he’d expand his business in other college towns. He opened up sandwich shops at Purdue University, Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and more. Within 10 years of opening his first shop, Jimmy John owned 10 sandwich shops.

Additionally, by 1993, he had $1 million in the bank. Considering he had a two-year deal with his dad to make something happen or he had to enlist in the Army, Jimmy John’s was already an overwhelming success within a decade of going into business. Not long after, he started to receive calls from people who wanted to open their own Jimmy John’s franchise. Things took off from there.

“I ran the company stores and I trained the franchisees,” Jimmy John said on Uncut with Jay Cutler. “From ’93 to 2003 I built my 10 stores to 25 stores. From ’93 to 2003 we built 200 franchises. My 25 stores in 2003 were making me $4.5 million, no debt.”

By 2019, there were more than 2,800 Jimmy John’s across the nation and the company was worth almost $3 billion. After 36 years, Jimmy sold his business to Atlanta-based Inspire Brands, which owns Buffalo Wild Wings, Arby’s, and Sonic Drive-In. His story began with a $25,000 investment from his father and one meager sandwich shop, but he ended up creating one of the most successful sandwich chains of all-time.

Make sure to check out the rest of Jay Cutler’s conversation with Jimmy John himself on this week’s episode of Uncut with Jay Cutler. You can watch the full video above, or tune in to Spotify, Apple, or wherever else you listen to your favorite podcasts.