Firehouse Subs is red hot on the northwest side, and it’s about to spread like, well, wildfire.
Owner Bob Westerman opened the first Tucson-
area Firehouse Subs at 3844 W. River Road in June 2012. He’s partnering with his son-in-law, Tucson Fire Department engineer Lee Transue, to open the next location, near Tucson Mall, and plans to open a third in Oro Valley.
Westerman, who retired as a manager at Raytheon after 38 years, went into the restaurant business to create an additional income stream and leave a business for his family to run. He’s off to a promising start.
“The Marana location has been successful from the first week we opened. It was the top-grossing store in the country that first week,” he said, adding that his location consistently ranks in the top 15 sales out of about 700 Firehouse Subs around the country.
Westerman, 63, used a six-figure investment from his 401(k) account to start the first restaurant. He knew he was taking a risk and is happy that he has pulled it off.
“It has been profitable since we opened our doors, and that has allowed us to expand,” he said.
Westerman and Transue will open a second Firehouse Subs at West Wetmore and North Oracle Roads in May, followed by an Oro Valley location — either at Oro Valley Marketplace or at North First Avenue and North Oracle. He hopes to have the Oro Valley Firehouse open as early as the third quarter of 2014.
The company has 24 employees, two of whom are full-time. Westerman said he will hire a similar number for each of the new restaurants.
Attributing his accomplishment to high-quality food and good customer service, Westerman said he’s found the ingredients of success. The Firehouse branding, as well, goes a long way toward building a customer base. The chain, which was founded in 1994 in Jacksonville, Fla., by firefighter brothers Chris and Robin Sorensen, prides itself on contributing to fire and rescue services.
Firehouse holds events at which customers are asked if they’d like to round their purchases up to the next dollar. The restaurant puts the money in a national pot, then helps local fire districts apply for grants from that fund. Westerman said 80 percent of donations are redistributed locally.
The parent company donated $24,000 to Northwest Fire District in 2012 and $18,000 to the Tucson Fire Department this year, as well as $4,000 to families of Yarnell Hill Fire victims.
“We are really tied in to first responders and their families,” Westerman said. “The customers seem to resonate with that.”
Westerman said Firehouse is a popular hangout for rescue workers, and some days there are as many as seven fire engines in the parking lot at a time. Fire districts donate turnouts and paraphernalia to hang on the walls.
“Sometimes the whole restaurant,” Westerman said, “is a sea of blue shirts.”