For Fran Camp, business ownership means sweeping floors, wiping down trays and eating at Subway almost every day for the last 23 years.
Camp and her mother own the Coconut Grove Subway on US 1, a venture that typically puts Fran on the front lines of South Florida’s fast-food wars six days a week. Regulars know her as a familiar face behind the register, but also bussing tables and emptying trash. “I like the grunt work,’’ Camp said.
She has seen the ups and downs from Subway, including the bump in sales in the early 2000s when a once-obese Jared Fogle went on Oprah to talk about his “Subway diet,” to the pressure from Quiznos’ increasingly popular toasted subs. (Subway introduced its own toaster option in 2004, and now Camp said 60 percent of her Subway’s sandwiches are toasted.) She and her mother have also bought and sold Subways along the way. Camp found managing more than one location was too much, given the demands of both raising children and being a hands-on owner . “I was running myself ragged. I didn’t have enough time with my children,’’ she said. “I downsized so I could have a life.”
In 1989, the two Camps bought their first Subway a short drive south on U.S. 1 in Coral Gables. Her mother had owned one in Broward for about a year, and urged her daughter to be a partner in a new one in Miami-Dade. “I went down on Monday to see if I liked the operations. On Tuesday, we gave them a good-faith deposit, and by Thursday I was on a plane to Connecticut for training,” Camp recalled.
Her mother, Burr Camp, handled the books, while Fran managed the operations. That division of labor mostly continues today. They sold their first store to open a new one at the University of Miami law school in the 1990s, and then eventually sold that and were left with their current restaurant. It used to be inside the Shell Station at the corner of SW 27th Avenue and U.S. 1 but moved to its own location in the same shopping center in 1998.
In many ways, Camp captures the upside and downside of franchise life.
Camp reaps the profits from selling a nationally branded product and has the flexibility that comes with owning her workplace. But almost three decades into her restaurant business, Camp serves as her own manager — typical for a small business where profit margins don’t allow the luxury of a manager to handle the day-to-day.
Camp said she doesn’t mind the work. “I clean bathrooms. I can’t ask my staff to do something I’m not willing to do,’’ she said.
During a telephone interview at her home in Kendall, Camp talked to Business Monday about her hands-on approach to business ownership, why she doesn’t post help-wanted ads, and the secret to getting a fresh omelette at Subway. The edited interview follows.
Q. What was the hardest year for your business?
The year we opened. We moved from the Shell station, and there was a five-month gap. Our customers had to find other places to eat. Sales weren’t strong, and they didn’t know where we were. So I put one sign out on the street. Our sales went up. I put tables and umbrellas out on the sidewalk. And our sales went up again.
Q. I often see you sweeping the floor. Are you doing somebody else’s job when you’re doing that?
Everyone is trained in the restaurant to do every job. If somebody sees the room is dirty, they’ll run out and clean it. The reason I clean is I love the grunt work. I know a lot of owners don’t feel this way. I can’t ask my employees to do things I’m not willing to do. The fish rots from the head.
Q. What do you pay a starting employee?
I’m not sure I should say that. Let’s just say nobody is making minimum wage. I have an amazing staff that has been with me a long time. I have some people that have been with me for 14 years. During the recession, we didn’t lay anyone off. Our sales may have dropped, but I kept everybody employed. My employees are too valuable to me.
Q. Did you cut back hours?
Nope. I ate some labor. I didn’t care. Subway [in its manuals for franchise owners] has a make-money formula. You’re supposed to keep your payroll to a certain percentage of your sales. Mine is about three or four percentage points higher. I couldn’t run my store on that [the recommend payroll cost]. Not efficiently. I’m paying for a little peace of mind.
Q. How do you find employees?
I never post an ad. My employees recommend people they know. They know what I expect. And they actually have very high standards. Anyone who comes in here to work needs to be approved by them.
Q. Do you have people coming into the store looking for work?
Not too much in the last six months. But in the last several years — especially in ’08 and ’09 — I had a lot of people walk in off the street. A lot of them brought in résumés and dropped them off. Some of them had been laid off from high-paying positions.
Q. Subway started serving breakfast a few years ago. How is that working?
I’ve been serving breakfast for 10 years. We’ve always been at work at 6 a.m., because that’s when we start baking the bread. I’d have customers see the light on, and they’d knock on the door. So I’d let them in. Then, they were buying sandwiches to eat at lunch for work. Then I was a test store for Subway for breakfast and omelettes. Now we do it the traditional way Subway does, with pre-made egg patties. We don’t do omelettes now, but we can.
Q. You can still get a real omelette at your Subway?
We have an omelette pan. I eat an egg every day. If you come in the store and want an omelette, I’m happy to make you one. I give them my eggs. Some of the customers who came in when we had the omelette promotion still ask for them. My job is to make people happy.
Q. Arby’s has been running ads slamming Subway for slicing its meat in factories, then shipping it to restaurants like yours. Have you seen any reaction from corporate on that, or heard anything from customers?
Not really. I have three deliveries a week. The meats are pre-sliced. When I first started with Subway, we sliced all of our meats and cheeses. We go through food very fast. I could spend four hours every day just slicing meat. As Subway got bigger, they needed to streamline operations and make the sandwiches more consistent.
Q. Would you recommend owning a fast-food franchise to other people?
A lot of people come into the restaurant industry and think it will be really easy. They don’t understand the effort that goes into it. You have to put in long hours. And you have to be the last one paid.
There’s a lot of competition out there. People can go to McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Pollo Tropical right in my area. You’ve got to give impeccable service, and a clean restaurant.
Parking is our biggest challenge. So we have back-door pick-up. Customers call in their order, and then call when they’re out back ready to pick-up. We walk the order out to them.
After Hurricane Wilma, we went out and got a generator so we could be open. Every time there has been a storm, we have been open. I have a responsibility to our neighbors.
Q. What’s the sandwich topping you have to refill the most?
Lettuce and tomato.
Q. And the least?