Monday, March 14, 2011

Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches

Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches
2626 North Government Way, Cd'A
(208) 666-0123

“I don't like gourmet cooking or "this" cooking or "that" cooking. I like good cooking.” ~ James Beard

The word "gourmet" is defined on as follows: "of or characteristic of a gourmet, especially in involving or purporting to involve high-quality or exotic ingredients and skilled preparation: gourmet meals; gourmet cooking." On the other hand, (always a much more well-rounded and useful place to look up words for people who are sick and wrong like myself) defines it as "the single most abused term in the world of food and cooking" and also "a new term to define girl's asses". Um, okay. Apparently, the site has hired Beavis and Butthead to impart their wisdom on the subject.

Based on the experience of myself and Jesi one recent sunny afternoon, the sandwiches served up at the new Jimmy John's store in Coeur d'Alene seem closer to the idea presented by UrbanDictionary's definition (the first one, dirty bird). Fortunately, Jimmy John himself seems to be sort of aware of this. "Ok, so my subs really aren't gourmet and we're not French either," he explains in a paragraph at the top of his menu. "My subs just taste a little better, that's all! I wanted to call it Jimmy John's tasty sandwiches, but my mom told me to stick with gourmet. She thinks whatever I do is gourmet, but I don't think either of us knows what it means. So let's stick with tasty!"

So who is this mysterious, lightly self-effacing sandwich chain impresario/extreme mama's boy known as Jimmy John anyway? The story goes like this: in 1983, after graduating second to last in his high school class in Elgin, Illinois, 19 year old Jimmy John Liautaud had to make a decision; join the Army or start a business. He chose the latter because olive drab was just not his color and Liautaud much preferred to wear a leotard. (OK, I made that last part up, but I just had to work that in there somewhere).

Jimmy John dug through a few crusty old cookbooks and started perfecting a bread recipe in his mama's kitchen with the goal of opening up a sandwich operation on a shoestring budget. He started out completely solo in a rented garage with only four sandwich options available and business began to take off after he decided to offer delivery services to the dorms at the nearby Eastern Illinois University. Cheap food plus drunk-ass college kids was a formula that was clearly bound for success.

Flash forward 27 years, and Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches has over a thousand locations in 39 states with another thousand in the pipeline, according to Wikipedia. When one considers that there are a kazillion other sandwich chains out there for hungry sheeples to choose from, the rapid growth of the company is quite impressive. Obviously, there are a a lot of people who've found Jimmy John's product quite impressive as well, but after our first visit to the two-week-old Coeur d'Alene outlet, we left feeling a little bewildered as to exactly why.

A feeling of disorientation overtook us as soon as we walked in, and for once it wasn't from the miasmic nebulosity in our brains. We were expecting the place to be buzzing. People in this town tend to swoop down on a new eating establishment fast and hard. It actually wasn't overwhelmingly crowded with customers, in fact there were possibly more people behind the counter than in the dining area.

Employees were swirling around back there like Vicodin hummingbirds and they were difficult to count, but there were approximately fourteen black-polo-clad teenage types hustling about in a mild panic as if they hadn't quite got the whole routine completely in the bag yet.

We stood in line trying to absorb the wall menu as fast as we possibly good. The first thing we both noticed was Jimmy John's attractively low price point, $4.75 for 8" subs and $5.75 for "giant club sandwiches". The former category includes the "Pepe" (Ham and Provolone cheese),  the "Big John" (Roast Beef), the "Vito" (Italian-ish stuff),  and the "J.J.B.L.T" (bet you can guess). The Giant Subs selection include basically the same general things, but the "Ultimate Porker" stood out for playing out the soul-searing fantasy-come-true of including both ham and bacon. Run, Petunia, Run!

The "J.J. Gargantuan" puts together enough ingredients to feed an unemployed Blanchard family for nine days: "Tons of genoa salami, sliced smoked ham, capicola, roast beef, turkey & provolone, jammed into one of our homemade French buns then smothered with onions, mayo, lettuce, tomato, hot peppers & our homemade Italian dressing." On a side note, I hear Pepto Bismol stock has been rising.

"So Fast You'll Freak" is Jimmy John's latest slogan, and in fact we did actually freak a little bit. We were given no sense of what to do next by the cashier, but apparently what we were supposed to do was move down a few feet to some kind of tiny pick up area and hover there, waiting for our items to be announced while blocking the flow of traffic and looking like assholes. We didn't quite realize this, so we found a sunny little table and just kinda waited instead.

Eventually, we figured out that despite a Costa Rican Army of kids getting paid to run around aimlessly, they weren't ever bringing our food out to us and that we had to go lfigure it out on our own. Here's the rub: instead of taking names, they just announce "who had the turkey sub with no tomato?" or whatever, thereby creating the possibility of hair-pulling and cooch kicking when the place is busy and someone orders the same thing at the same time as you.

The second time I visited Jimmy John's,  the girl made my sandwich then wandered away, leaving my food sitting helplessly behind the counter, and it was looking at me with big, sad sandwichy eyes. I stood there for five minutes before I could finally catch one of the other speeding teens and asked if that was my sandwich. "Uh, I dunno" he said and wandered off to do something else. Finally the original girl returned and handed me my food robotically and dispassionately, no apology or acknowledgment given at all. Fast? Not so much. Freaky? For sure.

As for the food itself, on the first visit we didn't find any evidence that might have separated Jimmy John's from the rest of the sandwich chain heap and in fact, I'd likely take good old Subway any day over what they serve. The pound of lettuce on my "Italian Night Club" (genoa salami, Italian capicola, smoked ham, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, hot peppers, and their "homemade" Italian vinaigrette) was so soaked with liquid, thick, and gloopy, that I had to scrape as much of it as I could off onto the paper wrapper (they did not provide plates or plastic baskets) as I could to make it even remotely edible.

Even then, it just seemed like a hot mess and although the meat and cheese did seem fresh, I had to just give up on the whole project around halfway though. Jesi was equally as unimpressed with her Tuna Club, which dripped watery mayo down her arms every time she would go to take a bite, and she had to purge the lettuce slop away as well.

I do like to give places a second chance if I get the opportunity, and on my second visit to Jimmy John's I played it safe and ordered their Ham and Cheese "Plain Slim", which means it comes with just meat, cheese, and bread with no veggies (people must have complained about their ridiculous lettuce situation enough that they were forced to put these on the menu). This was actually a thousand times better than the Italian wreck I'd dealt with the week before. It wasn't anything my mama (why does the subject of mothers keep coming up with this place?) didn't whip up for me all the time when I was a kid, but it won with it's clean, easy simplicity and delicious, soft and thick slices of honey wheat bread. And at $3.75, winner winner, good for lunch and dinner (er, sorry).

"Your Mom Wants You To Eat At Jimmy John's" (her again?) is another one of their dozens of clever slogans printed on their wall signs, menu and packaging, but I'm going to call bluff on that idea. My mom is a much better sandwich artist than this black cloud of careless adolescents and she would never associate with soggy, waterlogged lettuce or drippy tuna-mayonnaise arms.  At Jimmy John's it's probably best to stick with plain and simple.


Idaho Dad said...

I'm not sure I'll even try this place. Subs at Subway do the job for $5. The Italian Sub at Valentino's is gourmet enough.

But the sandwiches at Schlotzsky's are just perfect. I've eaten about 150 of them over the past 4 years. Why give up a good thing?

Anonymous said...

Hmm, that doesn't sound like a good start. My employer during my college years was Blimpie--a sandwich shop with a longer history than Subway, but unfortunately not as well marketed, especially not out here in the west.

We baked our bread fresh every day, we freshly sliced the meat right in front of the customers, and we garnished it to-order (although if you haven't had a sandwich the Blimpie Way, you're missing out).

The process was simple. You go to the side of the counter with the big sign hanging over it saying "Order Here." The person slicing asks what kind of sandwich you want, and once you say what kind, asks if you'd like white or wheat bread (other "gourmet" breads are listed on a big sign right next to the customer). After your selection was made, the bread got passed on down the line for garnishing while the meat was being sliced and the garnisher would ask, "Would you like this the Blimpie Way?" at which point the customer would either say yes, or list the garnishing he or she wanted. As soon as that question was fulfilled, whomever was running the cash register would take over and complete the transaction while the garnisher finished assembling the sandwich and wrapping it.

This all worked quite smoothly. We could run efficiently with as few as three people during slow hours, and a maximum of five to six during peak hours. (One slicer, one or two garnishers, one person on register, one person on drive through, and one person doing "back-up" bringing up supplies as we ran low, serving soup, etc.)

There was never a time when we were truly overwhelmed, even though we were the highest-volume sandwich shop in the area. It was just a matter of ensuring that employees were efficient and strategically placed.

There were some times where I would run the shop with only two people during really slow hours. During my heyday, I could slice a 6" Blimpie Best and garnish it the Blimpie Way in 20 seconds without making a mistake or a mess. That's: pull out a footlong loaf of bread, cut it in half, slice three types of ham, hard salami, and add provolone cheese then garnish with tomato, lettuce, onion, vinegar, oil, and oregano. Nicely assembled, wrapped and labeled in 20 seconds flat.

The point being? I was well-trained by my manager when I started working there, and when I became manager I kept the tradition. We were always polite (but never slobberingly over-friendly) and we were always efficient, and our customers really appreciated that.

I guess what this entire thing boils down to is that from this description, it sounds like Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches needs to focus less on number of hands-on-deck, and more on properly training their staff so fewer people can do the same amount of work faster and ensure satisfied customers. It's no good when you just abandon a customer's sandwich right in front of them and don't come back!

The one operational procedure described about Jimmy John's I did find even somewhat appropriate is identifying customers by their sandwiches. We always had a steady flow of customers, and customers moved along with their sandwiches all the way down the line, so it wasn't a necessity. Customers were constantly engaged and moving along with their sandwiches' creation from ordering at the slicer through receiving it at the cashier.

I'd been intending to try Jimmy John's soon, but after this blog, I'm not sure I could stand going in there. I can't tolerate establishments that are run as you've described. I'll probably try it at some point though if someone can answer a couple of questions for me: At minimum, is their bread fresh-baked every day, and is their meat fresh-sliced for each sandwich? If not, I'm sticking with the status quo of baking my own bread, frying my own tortillas and using my own home slicer to make fresh, delicious sandwiches and wraps.

Anonymous said...

First off I am a fan of Jimmy Johns.
Secondly, the location they chose is terrible. The idea of Jimmy Johns is built for Metropolitan areas so that business people can literally get in and out in 5 minutes.

Cut these CDA kids some slack, no one moves fast up there not even Starbucks! Once they figure out the process everything will work smooth. JJ's is set up to get you in, get you your food and get you out the door. Every sandwich is the same each time you order it which is awesome.

Usually the workers are happy, upbeat, chatting it up with the customers.

In all honesty it is not hard to figure out how to order and then receive your food at JJ's. It sounds like if the author did not know how to order and then locate where the food would come out but can operate a blog they are looking for things to complain about. I would rather be given a little leeway in terms of living my life over being told where to order and spoken to in rudimentary terms.

Just my .02

Anonymous said...

I prefer JJ to Subway, just because the sandwich seems like a better proportioned package. Subway is a lot of bread and trimmings...pretty light on the meat.

I used to own a fast food franchise and appreciate a well trained crew. Some places get that, others it takes a lot of trial and error. Too much error and you lose valuable customers.

The JJ in my old town kicked out sandwiches amazingly fast, so I always knew that if I needed a quick lunch JJ would deliver the goods.

I like the taste of their french roll, but am not sure if they bake in house. I'm going to guess no.

Anonymous said...

they do bake their bread in house... BOO YAAAAA