Firehouse Subs coming to O.C.
Firehouse Subs, which will soon have a presence in Orange County, is opening its first California location in Oceanside today, March 12.
The San Diego area location marks the beginning of a major West Coast expansion for the 495-unit Florida-based chain -- known for its meat and cheese steamed toasted subs. Firehouse plans to open about 300 locations in California over the next several years.
Locally, it is scouting locations in Irvine, Tustin, Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Orange, Laguna Beach, Mission Viejo, Newport Beach, Fullerton and Rancho Santa Margarita. The first O.C. sub shops could open in late 2012, said Jeff Press, tapped by Firehouse last year to lead the chain's Southern California expansion.
"There's heavy interest in Orange County, and we should see a location there within six months to a year," said Press, a former regional director at Chili's Grill and Bar Restaurant.
Firehouse's entrance into the region comes as chains with core customers outside of California invade a market already jam-packed with sub shops.
Subway, by far, is the largest Orange County sandwich chain with more than 220 locations. Others familiar brands are California-based Togo's and Quiznos, although the latter keeps shuttering locations.
Other chains cropping up, or announcing plans to enter the local market, are coming from Florida, New Jersey and Texas. One of the biggest invaders is Jersey Mike's, a favorite among East Coast transplants who love its sliced to order deli sandwiches.
Which Wich, a funky Texas-based sub shop, allows customers to jot down their ingredients from a brown paper bag order form -- where the options are endless. The chain has locations in Santa Ana and Fullerton.
Besides Firehouse, other brands opening their first Orange County shops are Las Vegas-based Capriotti's and Florida-based Earl of Sandwich.
Those chains are coming this summer, while Firehouse is still working on cutting deals with franchisees.
Firehouse was founded by a family of retired firefighters; ergo every store has a local firehouse theme and menu. The chain's signature sub, for example, is the ham and turkey Hook and Ladder.
But cute names aren't what keep customers coming back for more.
Instead, Press said the fast-casual chain stands above rivals for its unique sandwich preparation and award-winning service.
For the past two years, the chain has scored good marks in a highly regarded fast-food excellence survey by Sandelman & Associates in San Clemente. The Orange County firm ranks restaurants based on 16 key attributes including food, service, cleanliness, convenience and value. In 2011, Firehouse ranked No. 9.
As for the food, Firehouse does something I've never heard: Meat and cheeses for each sandwich are placed into a contraption that steams the core ingredients together for nearly three minutes at 145 degrees.
"The steaming process is unique to Firehouse, where it keeps the moisture and enhances the flavors of the meat and cheese together," Press said.
The warmed proteins are then placed on a toasted proprietary bun (white or honey wheat) and topped with the chain's "Fully Involved" toppings. The fire term is the chain's default blend of standard ingredients: mayo, deli mustard, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and ringed white onions.
All sandwiches come with fresh deli-sliced meats, though the slicing is not done to order like Jersey Mike's.
Speaking of the East Coast rival -- Firehouse's Fully Involved reminds me of the "Mike's Way" preparation at Jersey Mike's. Customers who order a sandwich "Mike's Way" get onions, lettuce, tomatoes, vinegar, oil and spices.
Like Which Wich, Firehouse takes your custom sandwich order at the register. No need to worry about the chaos that often occurs with assembly-line ordering like at Jersey Mike's and Subway.
Sandwich prices are also on par with competitors: a medium 8-inch sub, which comes with 1/4-pound of meat, ranges from $5.89 to $6.29. For $2 extra, you can get a 12-inch sub with a half-pound of meat. Want to keep carbs at minimum? Press said you can also pay $2 for double the meat on a medium sub.
Press said the chain's unique offerings should draw SoCal consumers looking for a different kind of sub shop.
"I researched many companies, but Firehouse Subs stood out with its loyal supporters in an industry plagued with generics," he said.
--The Oceanside Firehouse is at 2619 Vista Way.
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