Q&A with Kim Lesch

Kim Lesch, Real Estate Director for Cousins Subs, talks restaurant trends and being a woman in a male-dominated industry

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Q&A with Cousins Subs’ Director of Real Estate Kim Lesch on the State of The Development Industry

When it comes to restaurants, there is no one size fits all. That’s why it’s critical for restaurant brands to hire an expert to work with franchise partners and developers to retrofit or build a location that meets the needs of the brand and its guests. Kim Lesch, Director of Real Estate at Cousins Subs, does just that. When she isn’t meeting with contractors or conceptualizing ways to maximize restaurant space, she’s chatting one-on-one with franchise partners to identify ways to make their restaurants better. We caught up with Kim to learn what’s hot in the industry and her experience working in a male-dominated field.

Q: What are the two hottest trends in today’s restaurant industry?

A: 2020 is the year of change. After weathering the storm of COVID-19, many brands will look to make changes to increase profitability, visibility and safety. Prior to the pandemic, drive-thrus made a surge. I believe now they will be more valuable than ever before. According to CNN, experts estimate that upwards of 60 to 70 percent of a restaurant’s sales come from the drive-thru if they have one. When staffed correctly to ensure a great guest experience, this convenience can be a lifeline for restaurants during the uncertainty the pandemic has brought.

Another big trend is delivery. According to Upserve, 60 percent of U.S. consumers order delivery or takeout once per week. What’s more, 70 percent say they’d rather order directly from a restaurant. At Cousins Subs, our website or mobile app is the one-stop-shop to place a delivery order. While we offer first- and third-party delivery, all delivery orders can be placed on these channels.

Q: Cousins Subs has been relocating restaurants to more desirable locations in the same ZIP Code. Why should brands consider relocation and expansion?

A: The first thing a development team should look at is space. Analyze if all space needs are accounted for. That means ample parking space, seating in restaurants, personal space and handicap space. Next, identify if you’re located in a profitable space. If you are in a great location but the rent is too expensive, the business model won’t work. Not only is space important, but the location is paramount. Are you easily visible to guests and does your site have proper ingress and egress? It’s important that your guests know where to find you and delivery drivers can easily get to and from your location. Therefore, it’s encouraged to determine if your location is convenient for pick-up and delivery.

If you’ve done the math and the research and decide you are in the right trade area, but the wrong location, it’s recommended to stay in the general area to keep your same guests. At Cousins Subs, we try to find sites that are close to our existing locations because our trade areas are already defined. Afterall, we don’t want to move a location too far that it will take sales away from another location. It’s also recommended to move into a new space that offers drive thru, ample parking, visible signage and of course plenty of guest seating. Whether that means a bigger location or just a more conveniently located one, you want to create a better environment for your guests and your employees.

Q: Layout is vital to a restaurant’s success. What is the best process for designing the front of house and back of house and how does space play an important factor in design decisions?

A: Every brand will have a standard layout and equipment package. Owners must analyze the space they are given, and then maximize it. Start with the kitchen. Ensure the oven and grill are installed in a centrally located space along with the equipment that prepares signature menu items like Cousins Subs’ deep fryer and shake machines. Then, find a place for a walk-in cooler and freezer that isn’t visible to the customer. At Cousins Subs, we allocate 12 to 16 feet of space for dry storage. After maximizing kitchen space, decide where the bathrooms will be located. It’s standard to have the men’s and women’s restrooms in the same section of the store; it will also help you save on construction costs. Last, but not least, design your seating area. On average, Cousins Subs dedicates enough space within our restaurants to seat 40 guests comfortably. This typically includes a mix of booths and tables.

Finally, select your design elements. Cousins Subs has a standard design package we like to call our “Milwaukee Sub Shop” look. It comes complete with natural wood, stone and metal accents, décor that promotes the brand’s cuisine philosophy, rich history and commitment to the community through its Make It Better Foundation, new logo and digital menu boards. At all locations, the Cousins Subs mission will be the first thing guests see in the walkway when they enter our stores.

Q: Cousins Subs is opening new locations in Illinois and Indiana. What are some tools to balance the project management of new and existing restaurants?

A: At Cousins Subs, we rely heavily on well-organized teamwork. Everyone plays a different, but vital role in the development process. We divvy up and take ownership of specific tasks so that we are all able to meet our individual and team deadlines and goals.

We also like to work with preferred vendors. This yields a smooth and efficient construction process. That’s why we require our franchise partners to use a contractor that is approved by the Cousins Subs development team.

Building a new store or even renovating an existing store can be quite a long process and it is important not to rush. There are a lot of unforeseen circumstances that can come up. At Cousins Subs, we believe in better, so we don’t want to compromise the quality of a restaurant by rushing its completion.

We, as a development team, utilize different forms of tracking tools – like Microsoft Teams – and meet weekly. To be successful it’s important to foster collaboration with all departments at Cousins Subs.

Q: What has your experience been like as a woman in the development industry?

A: There’s no denying it, real estate and development is certainly a male-dominant industry. However, as a woman, I’ve found that my ability to develop strong relationships with partners is what’s made me so successful. My career with Cousins Subs spans six years, and I’ve never once felt glanced over or held back because of my sex. I truly believe in the development industry people give credit where credit is due, no matter what your gender is.

About Cousins Subs

Wisconsin-based Cousins Subs®, a family-owned, fast casual sub shop established in 1972 by Bill Specht and his cousin, is driven by the mission to Believe in Better – both in the quality of food it serves and in the communities it supports. Cousins Subs and its franchisees operate nearly 100 sub sandwich shops throughout Wisconsin and Illinois, providing guests with quality deli fresh and made to order grilled subs using only the freshest ingredients on its signature bread baked daily. For more information, visit cousinssubs.com. You can also find Cousins Subs on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.