EIU Memories: Jimmy John’s

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.

Jimmy John’s logo from a delivery bag, c. 2001

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.

Jimmy John’s ad from the Daily Eastern News, March 31, 2004. When sandwiches cost $3.75!

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.

A tattoo parlor occupies the original Jimmy John’s location, August 2013.

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.

A brand new Jimmy John’s opened at the corner of Fourth Street and Lincoln Avenue in July 2006, the year I graduated with my BA in Philosophy from EIU.

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.

Original Jimmy John’s location as it looks today.

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.


Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

3 thoughts on “EIU Memories: Jimmy John’s”

  1. We, in Charleston, IL, are proud of our hometown success! Jimmy John’s opened the year I graduated from high school & has been a favorite ours since it’s humble beginnings. We selfishly are a bit disappointed that Jimmy sold it to big corporate, for simple fear of them changing what’s been so amazing; however we also are very proud of the success he has accomplished through his years! EIU has had many students achieve great stature in their careers, and Charleston is proud to continue to have EIU in their backyard. I took classes there & my daughter graduated there & EIU & Jimmy John’s will always hold a special place in our hearts!💙

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My husband, Jack Hines, owner of Hines Electric Service in those days, did the electrical work on this original site. We were always proud of that beginning.

    Liked by 1 person

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