Sub Prime

Tubby’s Sub Shop has become one of the most recognized sub sandwich makers in the Detroit area. Photo by Hayden Stinebaugh

Despite the modern décor and updated facilities, walking into one of Tubby’s Sub Shops’ 62 locations throughout southeast Michigan can feel like entering a time machine, because much of the menu — featuring steak and cheese and other grilled submarine sandwiches — has lasted through the years.

Bill Kiryakoza, executive vice president of Tubby’s Sub Shops in Roseville, says most of the recipes are the same as when Richard Pagnes founded the company in St. Clair Shores in 1968. “We try to keep with the times, but we also stick with our backbone,” he says. “I would say 90 percent of our menu is (original), including our signatures like the Tubby’s Famous and the Classic.” 

There have been some modifications over the years, adds Sue Marchewka, Tubby’s director of operations and purchasing. “Ten years ago, we brought back the Classic, which has pepperoni, hard salami, ham, cheese, lettuce, onion, tomato, salt, pepper, vinegar, oregano, and oil,” she says. “That vinegar and oil was our dressing back in the early days, and probably in the ’80s we switched over to a creamy Italian to keep up with the times. We keep the vinegar and oil on our Classic because it goes back to that time.”

When a Tubby’s novice unknowingly asks about popular menu items, it’s clear there can only be one answer.

What’s kept us alive is our steak and cheese and our grill. Everything is made fresh to order, and people know that. That’s what keeps them coming in,” Marchewka says. “In the ’70s, Tubby’s was here and there were no other sub chains around. When they say a Detroit original, people had one sub and kept coming back for it.”

Customers aren’t the only ones who keep coming back to Tubby’s. There’s also the longtime loyalty and collaboration with franchisees. Although Tubby’s is in the process of becoming a large chain, Kiryakoza says the enterprise is a family company at heart.

“We have some franchisees who have been with Tubby’s for decades, and now their kids are buying franchises — but we have a lot of new guys, too,” he says. “The brand brings people back. Everyone knows Tubby’s, especially in the metro area. It’s a Detroit original sub. The new guys are a younger generation and they know it already because they grew up with it, so it’s easy to run.”

He adds that new franchisees learn “from A to Z how to run a business. We give them a key operation where they train, we show them how to make money, and they can be in business three months after we identify a location.”

Kiryakoza personally visits every new Tubby’s site and does walk-throughs with potential franchisees, drawing on his commercial real estate background to ensure individual and companywide success.

“We’re not going to pull any punches; we’re going to explain everything to you. We’re family people,” he says about signing on franchisees. “When you open up a location, we’re partners with you because it’s our company and our brand, so we’re very careful about what we’re doing so we don’t hurt the chain.”

Kiryakoza says he and other Tubby’s executives are “choosy” about potential locations, weighing factors like residential and commercial demographics, along with area traffic, to determine a store’s viability. The franchise fee for a traditional store starts at $12,500.

In the coming months, Tubby’s will add four locations, including one on the main campus of Wayne State University in Detroit, a drive-thru unit in Livonia, and restaurants at Maple and Haggerty roads in West Bloomfield Township and in Brighton off of I-96.   

Going forward, the goal is to have 100 stores throughout the metro Detroit area in the next several years, and then expand into cities such as Grand Rapids, Lansing, Grand Blanc, Flint, Monroe, and Toledo, Ohio.

To help speed growth, Tubby’s says master franchisees can add locations that are less
centralized, allowing them to run and sell food and beverages independently, with company guidance.

At the end of the day, Kiryakoza says Tubby’s sustainability comes down to consistency. “Whether you’re buying a tomato or purchasing cheese, we want to make sure everything comes from only our approved supplier, so everyone has the same steak and cheese, and everything is consistent.”