In 1983, 19-year-old Jimmy John Liautaud opened a sandwich shop in a small college town with a loan from his dad. He’s now worth $1.7 billion. That sandwich shop was Jimmy John’s, now a national sandwich chain, and that college was Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. Jimmy made his business profitable by offering fast delivery to the EIU dorms, and that’s how I encountered the sandwich chain 17 years later.
I first ate Jimmy John’s my freshman year of college, back in the fall of 2000. I didn’t have a car down at school, and when I got tired of dorm food, I would order Jimmy John’s and have it delivered to Carman Hall. A sandwich only cost $3.25, plus tip, and it came in a brown paper bag. Later, they came out with plastic cups with a different design on them every year. I have a collection somewhere.
When I was younger, I loved Subway, but there was something simple about Jimmy John’s sandwiches, and their menu hasn’t changed much over the years. Just pick a number and you’re set. On nice days, I always enjoyed sitting on the picnic bench outside the shop in the alley behind Positively Fourth Street Records.
I’ve heard a lot of Jimmy John stories over the years, but I never met the man myself. He faced a huge backlash in 2015 over photos of him posing with big game he killed on an African safari. Every once in a while the photos will resurface and he’ll face new calls for a boycott.
But Jimmy has done a lot for the local community, including donating tens of thousands of dollars to local schools, and $1 million to a wounded veterans organization. He even payed off Christmas layaways at Walmarts in Champaign, Urbana, and Savoy last year.
In my days at EIU, Jerry Cole was the manager of Jimmy John’s Charleston location. He took over the job in 1999, and quickly made friends with his impromptu trivia nights. It became a good way to keep ‘the drunks’ entertained early Saturday and Sunday morning after the bars closed.
Since Jimmy John’s moved to a new location at the corner of Fourth Street and Lincoln Avenue, it’s sad to see what’s become of the old sandwich shop. I always thought Jimmy should’ve turned it into a museum, like McDonald’s did with its Des Plaines location. Instead, the shop became a dumpy tattoo parlor, salon, and now part of a bar.
I used to hear people disparage central Illinois and dismiss Charleston as a small town where nothing ever happened, but here’s an example of a multi-million dollar business with over 2,800 locations across the country that literally started in a garage in Charleston. Whether or not you agree with the owner’s personality or recreational activities, you have to give him credit for starting a profitable and nationally-recognized business.
In late September of this year, Jimmy sold his sandwich chain to Inspire Brands, parent company of Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Sonic. It’ll be a well-deserved retirement, but I hope the new owners don’t change too much about the franchise.
I don’t know how many times I’ve told friends and coworkers that I ate at the original Jimmy John’s, and how it started in the town where I went to college. There’s a sense of pride in sharing a small part of that history.
- “After sale, Jimmy John’s HQ to stay in Champaign ‘for the time being’,” The News-Gazette (Champaign) 25 Sep. 2019.
- “Jimmy John’s founder opens up on expansion, big game hunting, possible IPO,” Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 3 Nov. 2015.
- “Jimmy’s town,” JG-TC (Mattoon) 12 July 2006.
- “Jimmy John’s owner happy to re-invest in city where he started,” JG-TC (Mattoon) 11 July 2006.
- “Jimmy John’s plans to cut ribbon Tuesday for opening,” JG-TC (Mattoon) 8 July 2006.
- “A taste for trivia: Jimmy John’s manager spreads knowledge of entertainment,” The Daily Eastern News (Charleston) 21 Oct. 2005.
- “‘Jimmy John’ brings new sub shop to town,” The Daily Eastern News (Charleston) 25 Jan. 1983.