Entrepreneurs interested in buying into a successful food franchise have hundreds from which to choose, including this list of the 25 best sandwich franchises. Why sandwiches? Sandwiches have found a very solid footing in recent decades.
People have been using bread as a vehicle to carry various ingredients for hundreds if not thousands of years, but the modern concept of the sandwich is traced back to John Montagu, England’s 4th Earl of Sandwich in the 1700s, who was known for eating chunks of salted beef between two pieces of toasted bread.
From such humble beginnings, it’s surprising that the sandwich industry today has become such a big business. To begin with, it is home to the largest restaurant chain in the world, Subway, which has nearly 45,000 locations (McDonald’s has only 37,000). The sandwich and sub franchises collectively generate more than $21 billion in revenues each year and represent 12% of all quick service restaurants, behind burger joints (30%) and pizzerias (15%) but ahead of chicken (8%) and Mexican (7%) establishments.
From subs and hoagies to wraps and pitas and beyond, here are the top 25 sandwich franchises of 2017/18.
1. Jimmy John’s
Jimmy John’s has been around since 1983, and its more than 2,700 locations do things a bit differently – no oven-baked hot sandwiches and only one cheese (provolone). But JJ’s delivers, which is rare among sandwich chains, and does so freakishly fast. Their French-style sub rolls are baked fresh daily, and their meats and veggies are freshly sliced each day in the store. New England is a largely untapped market, with no JJ’s in CT, VT, NH, or ME (there are a handful in MA). The chain’s quirky, irreverent ad messaging is a big hit with the college-age crowd.
2. Firehouse Subs
Firehouse Subs was founded in 1994 by former firefighting brothers Robin and Chris Sorensen in Jacksonville, Florida. The chain’s restaurants feature a firefighting theme on the menu with hot and cold sub names like the Hook & Ladder or the Engineer, and also in store décor featuring firefighting equipment, memorabilia, and artwork. The chain now has at least 1,050 locations, which is triple the number it had in 2010. A portion of every purchase goes to the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation to support first responders in the communities where the chain has a presence. The foundation has granted over $29.5 million to provide equipment, training, and support to hometown heroes.
3. Charleys Philly Steaks
Charleys Philly Steaks was the brainchild of Charley Shin. When he was an Ohio State University student back in 1985, he took a wrong turn on the way to New York City and wound up in Philadelphia, where he tasted his first Philly cheesesteak sandwich. It was love at first bite. He created his own recipe and opened Charley’s Grilled Subs on the OSU campus when he was only 22. The menu now includes four signature Philly-style steak subs, four chicken subs, four deli subs, three kinds of gourmet fries, and three salads available at more than 500 locations.
4. McAlister’s Deli
McAlister’s Deli had humble beginnings in Oxford, Mississippi, back in 1989 with its first location in a renovated gas station. McAlister’s is known for being extremely kid-friendly, which means it’s great for families. It takes a southern-hospitality approach to its atmosphere, has seasonal menu items, and makes a big deal of its sweet-tea with annual Free Tea Day each summer. Its humble beginnings are often reflected in store décor, including roll-up garage doors and retro black-and-white tile. The chain has also won a ton of awards in the last several years and is currently ranked #23 on Entrepreneur Magazine’s Franchise 500 list.
Subway is the global juggernaut of sandwich chains with its 45,000 locations all over the world, making it the biggest restaurant chain of all. And it’s still a privately-held company. It got its start back in 1965 initially as a way for Fred DeLuca to fund medical school, but the success of the chain kept him busy, and made him a billionaire as well (Sadly, Fred passed away in 2015 after battling leukemia). It has focused on making its menu healthier than most sandwich chains. It only recently stopped one of the most successful promotions in sandwich history – the $5 footlong deal.
Arby’s gets its name from its founders, the Raffel Brothers (RB morphed into Arby’s), who opened the first location in Boardman, OH, back in 1964. When Leroy and Forrest got started, their goal was to produce fresh-sliced roast beef sandwiches as fast as any burger joint. Their concept worked and they started franchising in 1965. There are currently around 3,300 locations and the menu features a wide variety of beef sandwiches along with a few items featuring turkey, ham, or chicken. Recent menu innovations include a popular seasonal venison (deer meat) sandwich, as well as an elk sandwich in a few locations.
7. Jersey Mike’s Subs
Jersey Mike’s Subs started out as just Mike’s sandwich shop in Point Pleasant, NJ, all the way back in 1956. In 1972, 14-year-old Peter Cancro started working at the shop, and when it went up for sale three years later in 1975, he and a friend managed to put together $125,000 and bought it. By 1978 they were franchising their revamped concept and there are now around 1,300 locations. Any sub can be ordered Mike’s Way: onions, lettuce, tomatoes, spices (salt and oregano), and the Juice (a mixture of red wine vinegar and olive oil). The menu includes 28 hot and cold subs along with five signature wraps.
8. Which Wich Superior Sandwiches
Which Wich Superior Sandwiches is a relative newcomer compared to the many sandwich chains that have been around for decades. Which Wich was started in 2003 by Jeff Sinelli in Dallas, TX, and franchising began in 2005. Now with more than 430 locations in 36 states and 10 countries around the world, the chain is most famous for the way customers place orders. They use red Sharpies to mark pre-printed menus on sandwich bags, selecting from among 10 categories of sandwiches, then choosing the bread, cheese, spreads, and toppings. Patrons are encouraged to use the red markers to decorate their bags and hang them in a gallery area in the shop.
9. Erbert & Gerbert’s Sandwich Shop
Erbert & Gerbert’s Sandwich Shop got its start back in 1988 when Kevin and Beth Schippers opened the first location in Eu Claire, WI. The 16 subs on the menu have odd names such as Narmer, Bornk, Girf, Comet Morehouse, Quatro, and so on. These are all characters from the stories Kevin’s father used to tell his 10 children back in the day: The Adventures of Erbert and Gerbert Herbert. Each sandwich on the menu has its own write-up that relates back to the original stories. In addition to the subs, the chain’s menu also features nine different soups for the soup-and-sandwich effect.
10. Lenny’s Grill & Subs
Lenny’s Grill & Subs was started by Len Moore, who had more than 25 years of experience in all kinds of restaurants before he and his wife Sheila opened the first Lenny’s in Memphis, TN, in 1998. They only wanted one location to help pay for their daughter’s college education, but the demand was so strong they soon opened five more locations. By 2001, they had opened 20 locations and decided franchising would make sense. The chain currently has about 100 locations that feature Philly-style submarine sandwiches with 10 deli subs, 11 grilled subs, and five salads.
Schlotzsky’s got its start in 1971 with a single location and a single sandwich, The Original, in Austin, TX. Now with more than 350 locations in 35 states, each store has a much wider menu. While The Original is still its most famous sandwich, customers enjoy a variety of fresh-baked breads, hot sandwiches, artisan flatbreads, specialty pizzas, toasted wraps, freshly-tossed salads, gourmet soups, and more. Many locations also feature Cinnabon and Carvel ice cream products since the chain is owned by Focus Brands, an affiliate of Roark Capital Group, which owns those and other restaurant brands.
12. Cousins Subs
Cousins Subs got its start back in 1972 by Bill Specht and James Sheppard who, as you might guess, are cousins. Because they came from New Jersey, they were big fans of submarine sandwiches, but when they settled in Milwaukee, WI, they were disappointed to find virtually no sub shops. When they opened their first shop, they quickly gained a following that consisted mostly of East Coast folks who missed their subs. Sprecht has retired and now his daughter Christine is the CEO. In 2016 a major revamping of the brand got underway, including expansion into other geographic areas. There are now 95 locations in Wisconsin and Arizona.
13. Pita Pit
Pita Pit was founded by Nelson Lang and John Sotiriadis in Kingston, Ontario, back in 1995, well before the healthier-eating trend became as popular as it is today. They wanted to offer a fresher, healthier menu than traditional high-fat, high-carb, high-calorie fast food. They settled on Lebanese-style pita sandwiches filled with fresh veggies, grilled meats, and zesty sauces. Many of the shops stay open late into the night/morning, which appeals to university students. Now there are more than 650 locations throughout North America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Asia-Pacific. With 20 pita fillings and 40 toppings to mix and match, millions of combinations are possible.
14. Potbelly Sandwich Shop
Potbelly Sandwich Shop was started by Peter Hastings in 1977 in a Chicago space that was previously an antique shop. The décor of the first location used many items from the antique store, including a potbelly stove that gave the sandwich shop its name. Bryant Keil purchased the restaurant in 1997 and began expanding into a chain that now has 478 locations in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and United Arab Emirates (only 54 are franchises and the rest are company-owned). Potbelly does most of its business during lunch and many locations feature live music from local musicians.
Capriotti’s got its start back in 1976 when siblings Lois and Alan Margolet opened a sandwich shop named after their grandfather, Philip Capriotti, in Wilmington, DE. And they did it in Little Italy, a neighborhood where there were already seven sandwich joints. Their gimmick to make them different was in-store roasting of whole, fresh turkeys overnight so they could pull fresh turkey meat each morning for sandwiches, a tradition that remains in all 106 locations of the chain today. The menu features 17 different subs, two sandwiches made with sliced bread, and six different salads.
16. Great Steak
Great Steak, previously known as The Great Steak and Potato Company, has been offering up cheesesteak subs and potato dishes since 1982 when it got its start in Dayton, OH by founder Nicola J. Lanni, who built the chain up to 260 locations. This is a true meat-and-potatoes operation featuring four cheesesteaks, four chicken Philly subs, seven different grilled sandwiches, six kinds of French fries, five different baked potatoes, potato skins, and four breakfast sandwiches. Great Steak is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Kahala Brands with a current location count of 67.
Togo’s dates back to 1968 when there was a tiny little sandwich shop near San Jose State University with a sign out front that read “sandwiches” on the first line and “to go” on the second line. When university student Mike Cobler discovered it in 1971, he bought it. Two more locations were started and by 1977 franchising began. There are now about 250 locations. The core menu features 19 subs, six salads, four veggie sandwiches, and a selection of soups that changes daily. Any sub can be ordered without bread and served up as a salad with romaine lettuce or in a tortilla wrap.
Tom+Chee is a chain focused on the classic grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup. It was started by friends Trew Quackenbush and Corey Ward along with their wives Jenn and Jenny, in Cincinnati, OH. After a year in a tent, they were able to open a real store and people were willing to wait in line well over an hour for creative offerings such as the grilled cheese donut — a donut sliced like a bagel, and grilled with your choice of cheese or lots of other interesting toppings. They received a boost by landing a $600,000 investment during season 4 of Shark Tank from Barbara Corcoran and Mark Cuban.
19. Penn Station East Coast Subs
Penn Station East Coast Subs was founded by Jeff Osterfeld in 1988. He previously ran Jeffrey’s Delicatessen in Dayton, and when he discovered the Philly cheesesteak concept, he revamped his approach and opened the first Penn Station in Cincinnati. His innovations back in those days were “display cooking” where customers could see their food being prepared right in front of them, fresh-cut French fries, and hand-squeezed lemonade. After three years of honing the concept, franchising began in 1988 and now there are more than 310 locations in 15 states. The menu includes four classic subs, three chicken subs, and three Italian subs that can be served hot or cold.
Blimpie got its start in Hoboken, NJ, back in 1964 (a year after Subway was founded) when three friends were inspired by Mike’s sub shop (now Jersey Mike’s Subs). The company had as many as 2,000 locations back in 2002, but that number has dwindled down to its current 315. Efforts are underway to revitalize the Blimpie concept and branding. The menu includes 10 cold deli subs, four hot subs, four paninis that can be prepared on either ciabatta or pretzel bread, three wraps, and two salads (and any sub can be ordered as a salad for those watching their carbs).
21. CHēBA Hut
CHēBA Hut (pronounced cheeba) is a sandwich chain steeped in cannabis culture with a laid-back anti-establishment vibe. The concept was the brainchild of Scott Jennings, who opened the first location in Tempe, AZ, back in 1998. The phonetic pronunciation of the chain’s name approximates the Spanish pronunciation of Chiba, a slang term for highly potent Colombian marijuana. The core menu features 26 “toasted subs” with names that are all different kinds of pot. The company mascot is a very stoned bird named Flip who is always smoking a joint. Although there only 16 locations at present, the ever-increasing legal availability of marijuana bodes well for this chain.
PrimoHoagies dates back to a time when the sandwich now more commonly called a submarine was known as a hoagie. The first PrimoHoagies was opened on Ritner Street in south Philadelphia when it seemed like there was a hoagie shop on every corner. PrimoHoagies distinguished itself by focusing on the sandwich’s Italian origins, and the chain’s Italian Hoagie is its best-selling sandwich to this day. But the chain has something for everyone with its 59 different hoagies. The first store opened in 1992, franchising began in 2002, and there are now 89 locations in six states.
23. Extreme Pita
Extreme Pita is a Canadian chain that got its start when Brothers Alex and Mark Rechichi opened the first location in Waterloo, Ontario, back in 1997. With more than 175 locations throughout Canada and the U.S., the Extreme Pita menu offers sandwiches wrapped in Lebanese-style pita bread, pizza-style “flatbaked pitas,” salads, smoothies, and breakfast pitas. Along with various meats, cheeses, and veggies, falafel and hummus are featured prominently on the menu of ingredients. Extreme Entrées, a new offering, are more substantial than the pita sandwich, are made fresh in-store and include sautéed veggies, protein, 7-grain rice blend, and a salad.
24. D’Angelo Grilled Sandwiches
D’Angelo Grilled Sandwiches goes back to 1967 when Brian J. McLaughlin and Jay Howland opened up Ma Riva’s Sub Shop in Dedham, MA, eventually changing the name to Angelo Sub Shop and later to D’Angelo around 1978. The D’Angelo menu includes nearly 40 different subs and sandwiches (both hot and cold), five rice and grain bowls, seven grilled topped salads, three wraps, and two hot soups. Unlike most sandwich chains, D’Angelo’s 235 locations in MA, CT, RI, NH, and ME offer delivery in addition to dine-in and carry-out. From 1993 to 1997, D’Angelo’s was owned by PepsiCo’s fast food arm, which then became Yum! Brands, and now it is owned by the parent company of Papa Gino’s.
25. Chicken Salad Chick
Chicken Salad Chick began with Stacy Brown in Auburn, AL, selling her homemade chicken salad door-to-door, but since that’s technically illegal, she and her future husband Kevin opened the first restaurant in 2008. Franchising began in 2012 and there are now more than 70 locations in six states, with plans to expand further. The menu features 15 different signature styles of chicken salad that can be served on bread or on lettuce, along with a variety of sides.