This Entrepreneur Borrowed $125,000 as a Teen, Then Used It to Build the $1 Billion Jersey Mike’s Brand

This Entrepreneur Borrowed $125,000 as a Teen, Then Used It to Build the $1 Billion Jersey Mike’s Brand

When Smith had heard his quarterback was coming over to talk on a Sunday, he thought Cancro must be in trouble. Cancro explained he'd missed all his classes the past week because Mike's Subs, a local sandwich shop where he'd worked for the past four years, was for sale for $125,000. Smith loaned Cancro $125,000 with a seven-year payback plan to win out over the other buyers' offers. Working at the sub shop every day meant he skipped a lot of class during the three months leading up to graduation. Cancro started working at Mike's Subs in 1971, when he was 14 years old. He had one contender who wanted to shore up the deal in exchange for a partnership, but Cancro didn't want a partner. People couldn't afford to take out loans, so Jersey Mike's franchise growth slowed. And Cancro, who had invested almost all of his earnings into growing the business, had to lay off his six employees. After heading into his office, he spent time with the owners of each Jersey Mike's location to make sure everything was being done right. Future plans for franchising After 43 years of work, Jersey Mike's plans to double its number of locations over the next five years.

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Peter Cancro was just 17 when he bought the sandwich shop where he worked. Here’s how he turned it into the billion-dollar chain of franchises that Jersey Mike’s is today.

This Entrepreneur Borrowed $125,000 as a Teen, Then Used It to Build the $1 Billion Jersey Mike's Brand

On a cold, clear night in March 1975, Peter Cancro knocked on his high school football coach’s front door in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. It was just after 9 p.m. on a Sunday, but Cancro felt this couldn’t wait. He had to see Rod Smith.

Smith’s wife, Janet, opened the door and ushered Cancro into the living room, where the coach was seated in his favorite armchair. When Smith had heard his quarterback was coming over to talk on a Sunday, he thought Cancro must be in trouble. But Smith reserved judgment and simply listened.

Cancro explained he’d missed all his classes the past week because Mike’s Subs, a local sandwich shop where he’d worked for the past four years, was for sale for $125,000. Cancro wanted to be the one to buy it. Another buyer was ready to sign for the sub shop, Cancro explained fervently, and there was no time to lose. He opened a folder and laid out the business’s gross profits and earnings potential. After looking over the details, Smith, who was also a banker, sat back and looked his quarterback in the eye. “I think I can do something,” he said.

Smith loaned Cancro $125,000 with a seven-year payback plan to win out over the other buyers’ offers. Cancro left his coach’s house feeling like he couldn’t fail, and he kept his plan mostly to himself. The deal closed on March 31, 1975.

At 17, Cancro was officially a business owner. Now, he’s the founder and CEO of Jersey Mike’s Subs after he expanded that single mom-and-pop location to close to 1,400 franchises nationwide with more than $1 billion in annual sales. Jersey Mike’s is measured as the fastest-growing sandwich chain in the U.S., with more than 18 percent growth in sales year over year, according to industry research from Technomic. (Jersey Mike’s closest competitor in sales growth, Firehouse, boosted annual sales at less than 5 percent.) Nevertheless, after Cancro’s buyout, there were bumps in the road that he had to learn to navigate on his own.

Going all in on an instinct

His senior year of high school, Cancro had the title of class president, a winning smile and hair akin to 1970s-era David Cassidy. He also had aspirations to study law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But after the Mike’s Subs deal closed, Cancro’s priorities shifted. Working at the sub shop every day meant he skipped a lot of class during the three months leading up to graduation. He had enough credits to graduate, but he hadn’t realized that full participation in gym class was a requirement. He secured a medical excuse for skipping and graduated with his class — after driving up in the Mike’s Subs van.

Cancro started working at Mike’s Subs in 1971, when he was…

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