Cheba Hut “Toasted” Subs is the nation’s only counter-culture themed restaurant franchise, with stores operating on or near college campuses throughout the country. Cheba Hut serves up unique, one-of-a-kind, toasted sandwiches, salads, and “munchies” with excellent customer service, real people, and a relaxed atmosphere. “We do things a little differently at Cheba Hut and we’re proud of that!” Cheba Hut currently has 14 stores operating and six additional stores in various stages of development.
Matthew Trethewey is Chief Operating Officer at Cheba Hut, in charge of brand development, system growth, planning, and franchise leadership. Matthew owns High Waves LLC, which owns and operates Cheba Hut restaurants in Southern California; and is president and CEO of Rightway Development LLC, which offers small business and leadership consulting for retail and restaurant operators, specializing in start-ups, franchising, and growth management. Prior to Cheba Hut, Matthew was Cold Stone Creamery’s Regional VP of Operations for AZ, NM, TX, and OK.
Franchise Chatter (FC): Can you tell us a bit about Cheba Hut’s history?
Matthew Trethewey (MT): Our history is pretty simple. Our founder, Scott, grew up in the Midwest and always wanted to get to the beach but was surrounded by corn fields. After graduating from ASU, Scott wanted to open a business that made great food, catered to the college crowd, and delivered. Cheba Hut came from those simple roots. We incorporate a mural with a beach scene in each store as a nod to Scott’s desire to be at the beach. Now, every day when we are in the stores, it feels like we’re at the beach.
FC: For those unfamiliar, please tell us about your menu and concept. What sets you apart from other sub sandwich franchises?
MT: Our sandwiches are unique for several reasons. We slice all of our product fresh every day. Our meat isn’t all made from turkey and our veggies are prepped fresh. We don’t open bags of produce, we chop it fresh. All of our sauces are blended in house and we make all of our munchies in house as well. When you put this kind of attention into your product, it just tastes better.
Our sandwiches have unique flavor profiles that only exist at Cheba Hut. Sure, we have the standard turkey or roast beef sandwiches like others out there, but we also have sandwiches that the competition can’t touch, like the La Canna (Italian), the Thai Stick (Teriyaki Chicken), and the White Widow (Chicken, Bacon, and homemade Ranch). Not to mention our six awesome vegetarian sandwiches. These aren’t your typical veggie patty; these are made with in-house ingredients like our hemp cream cheese, fresh made guacamole, and our great selection of fresh veggies.
Our concept is different from all the others because we take the same approach to business as we do to our menu. We place an equally strong focus on our level of service and our atmosphere as we do on our product. To us, it’s more about the interaction than it is the transaction. Our counter culture theme and marketing approach allow us to push boundaries that other concepts just can’t touch. Our customers enjoy our tongue in cheek marketing and have a lot of fun with it. They get that we’re having a good time and I think that resonates with them.
FC: What are some of the ways you express your counter culture theme in your restaurants?
MT: The counter culture theme is everywhere you look at the Cheba Hut. It’s in the names and sizes of our sandwiches, it’s in the art and decor that you see throughout the store. There are even some subtle things going on in our logo! Everything we do is based in the counter culture. We DON’T want to be like the other guys, and we put a lot of effort into doing things differently. We have a saying: We do things differently at Cheba Hut, and we’re proud of that!
We also hold an annual 420 party at all of our stores each year on April 20th. It’s our customer appreciation day. We sell a small sub, bag of chips, and a drink for $4.20 and serve it up in a dated Cheba Hut Frisbee. It’s our busiest day of the year. People actually call in sick to work and skip school to make it to our 420 parties. It’s a great day and, according to our numbers, is the largest 420 celebration in the country!
FC: To what do you attribute your impressive average unit volume, which rivals the volumes of some of your more well known competitors?
MT: I think it’s simple. We connect with people. They see our attention to the fundamentals: great food, great service, and a great atmosphere! This is a tough business and we are in a very competitive segment. Our growth is a testament to our brand and our franchise operators. We have a hook that gets people’s attention. Once we have their attention, the food, service, and atmosphere are what brings them back!
FC: How are you able to keep your initial investment costs down relative to your peers?
MT: We always try to keep our franchise operators’ bank account in mind when we make decisions. We’ve seen companies drive up the cost of initial investment to the point where franchisees are working for the bank for the first several years they own a franchise. We dont want to operate like that. Like I said, we do things a little differently. We have a very simple equipment package and we keep our build outs from getting out of control. It shouldn’t cost too much to open a sandwich shop!
FC: Do you think having a controversial theme has helped or hurt your expansion plans? Do you expect to downplay this theme in the future to reach a wider audience?
MT: That’s a great question. We certainly understand that our theme presents a natural obstacle for our growth, but we also realize that our operator is out there! Everywhere! We do not have Subway aspirations of being the largest franchisor in the world. We simply see Cheba Hut on every major college campus throughout the US. We’ll keep our focus in the West and Midwest before heading to the East Coast but when it makes sense, we’ll go to the East Coast too. We see a few hundred stores system wide. When we hit this goal, we’ll look at our current franchise base and see who can expand into back fill markets and smaller schools.
We have no intention of downplaying our theme. It’s who we are! We think this attitude is very appealing to entrepreneurs who like to take risks and are very ambitious by nature. With our college development plan, we are exposing the brand to thousands of college students every year. They are the business owners of tomorrow.
MT: The candidates have to be the right culture fit. Our ideal franchisee is a person who understands the market, has some business acumen, access to funding, a positive team player attitude, and an understanding of how important local store marketing is in a start up!
FC: What is the ideal location and neighborhood for a Cheba Hut restaurant?
MT: Near a major university. We look at schools that have over 20,000 students and a city population of 75,000 or more.
FC: Can you name another franchise (inside or outside your category) that you admire, and why?
MT: There are a few. I like Rubio’s. They have a great product and they stay true to their theme. From their interior to their packaging, it’s all beach themed. Pita Pit has an amazing real estate department. They do a great job with their locations. And of course, you gotta love Five Guys. They’re setting the world on fire lately. Great product, simple menu, and great execution!
FC: What are your plans for Cheba Hut in the next few years and how do you plan to grow your business?
MT: Most of our growth to this point has been organic. We’ve had great local word of mouth and we’ve been able to help a few of our operators become multi-unit operators. We realized some time ago that this approach wouldn’t get us very far, so we’ve implemented a development plan and are in full swing. This includes advertising, in-store displays, and trade shows. Word of mouth and PR will always be in the quiver, but we’re adding some new arrows now!
FC: Is there anything else you wish to share about Cheba Hut?
MT: I think it’s obvious but we’re all having a lot of fun. When you love what you do and you’re making money doing it, everyone wins!