College of Business: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Important Site Links

Cold Cuts Make for Hot Success: Entrepreneur Discusses Making His Dream a Reality


Jimmy John Liautaud.The Academy of Entrepreneurial Leadership held a “Spotlight on the Entrepreneur” lecture this month, presenting every college student’s favorite entrepreneur, Jimmy John Liautaud, founder and owner of Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches.

The event was held at Spurlock Museum where approximately 200 students and faculty members listened to the interview between Jimmy John and Stevie Jay from Newstalk 1400 WDWS, Lite Rock 97.5 WHMS radio and vice president of the News Gazette, Inc.

The $300 million company, which now consists of 380 shops, began in January 1983 at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois, where Liautaud took a chance on a big dream. Coming off a sub-par high school performance and the threat of enlisting in the army, he borrowed some money from his dad and moved to Charleston to start his career near friends and family.  

That big dream originally was to own a Chicago-style hotdog stand, but he quickly turned to the lower-maintenance sandwich industry, a business that was able to start with just a refrigerator, oven, meat slicer, and his mother’s old kitchen utensils. During that spring in 1983, when Liautaud lost his only few employees and the store was on the verge of closing, he cites taking the easy road as his major mistake. He let his employees work almost all the shifts, and after they quit, he started working by himself 17 hours a day for seven days a week to keep his dream alive. “I had failed at everything I did. I never had any wins. I had to do it,” he said.

From then on, that same mentality is what kept Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwich shops alive. He talked about their popular delivery service, which he launched as a way to survive because he did not have a great location when he started. Jimmy John and his store were about survival, not strategy.   

However, while his sandwich business started meagerly, Liautaud has come a long way as an entrepreneur. The company aims to educate, mentor, and help people be successful. Jimmy John’s often gives opportunities to struggling college students to start at his stores and they rise to general managers who get 30% of their store’s profit. About two-thirds of his top executives are employees that have come from the organization’s trenches and moved to high-level positions. Liautaud takes pride in impressing his work ethic on others. He screens each franchise owner closely to make sure that each will carryout his hard-working principles to uphold Jimmy John’s commitment to excellent customer service. Liautaud stays modest despite his success. He owns and manages 18 stores and makes sandwiches behind the counter just like all his employees.

His advice to others who want to accomplish a dream as an entrepreneur is to never stop going, and always work hard. “Tenacity will beat brains seven days a week. Go in on Saturday. Stay ’till 6:30 on Friday’s. Somebody will notice, and reward you for it,” he said.

The Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership offers entrepreneurial programs, services, and resources to faculty and graduate students on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. The Academy is funded by a grant from the Kauffman Foundation with matching funds from the College of Business and other academic units, the University of Illinois, and private donors.

--Sarah Judd

UIUC College of Business