Episode 28

Published on:

14th Feb 2022

Keith Novotny on Owning a Cousin's Sub Franchise

Keith Novotny and I met when I was first working at 92.5 WBWI and he was doing what he's been doing his whole life—working at Cousins Subs. He's been working there for 25 years now, and has been an owner of the Cousins locations on Paradise Drive in West Bend and Fond du Lac Avenue in Kewaskum for 20 years.

On this week's episode, Keith joins me to talk about why he started working at Cousins, how he eventually became a franchise owner, and how he puts his "never say 'no'" philosophy to work in our community.

Hungry? (the mint shakes and rueben subs are back... and they're fantastic).


Fuzz Martin 0:08

hole life. He told me that in:

So we first got to know each other Keith, when I was working at WBWI and you would come in to record radio commercials. And I produced those and here we are today recording. We were kids then man. How young were you when he first started? Or when he first became a Cousin's franchise owner?

Keith Novotny 2:04

Well, actually, you and I met each other when I was 18. When I actually worked at the store on 33. Cousins Subs on 33 Yeah, I would call in every single day of the radio station for name that tune. Oh, yes. Yeah. ringtone? Yeah, I think after a while you actually couldn't sicken me. Because some days I would call in. And you would I would be like call our 10. Yeah. And I would just hang up. That's honestly, if I can get through.

Fuzz Martin 2:25

Oh, sure. Yeah. By the way, the trick if you ever want to win at one of those, like calling games count to 10 before you dial because everybody's going to rush and hit send right away. And it takes about 10 seconds to clear out all the next calls. So that's when that next wave comes. Again, if it's they typically have either five or 10 lines. So you got to kind of play it. It might be 20 seconds or whatever. But, but who's listening anyway. Anyway. So when so you were just working at the Cousins on 33 then right in and then when did you get into becoming an owner?

Keith Novotny 2:59

So me and a partner bought three stores when I was 21 years old. Kind of the only thing that I've ever done in my life is cotton subs. So you're working in when you were in high school. We started there in 16 when I was 16. I started at 33 location, because I never ate a Cousin's sub in my life before that day. Okay, before I started there, okay, and I thought it'd be slow and easy job. I was like, it's a bad location. No one ever goes there probably.

Fuzz Martin 3:24

Since then, so you went in with a partner and you bought the three locations. You no longer own the one on 33? Correct? Yep. But you do own the Cousins on Paradise drive over by Starbucks in West Bend. And then also the one on Fond du Lac Avenue in Kewaskum. Now you're 40 Almost 41 Almost 41. So that means you've been doing this for almost 20 years.

Keith Novotny 3:45

I've been with Cousins. This is this year was this year's Cousin Subs 50th 50th anniversary and it's my 25th anniversary.

Fuzz Martin 3:50

y, but as an owner, it's been:

Keith Novotny 3:58

Kind of a long story. I'm actually a college dropout. I went to UW-Eau Claire for a couple semesters and I just hated it. Sure. And I came home and I actually asked Cousin Subs to get a job for me again, new job and they made me a general manager of one in Mequon. Okay. And then the Cousin Subs corporate opened the store on Paradise drive. Yep. And I was the general manager over there. And then 08 kind of before the recession, something that Cousins decided to sell off a lot of stores. And that's kind of where I got involved there. Gotcha. Okay. It's been a heck of a ride. It's been awesome. A lot a big learning opportunity, that's for sure. Sure. And learn new stuff every day. I enjoy what I do. I get asked all the time. How do you get going? I tell my story to people that I'm interviewing all the time because they're inspired by it right? It's pretty neat.

Fuzz Martin 4:41

What is your favorite part about the Cousins franchise brand? What do you like most about them?

Keith Novotny 4:48

We're local. I'm a big local guy. You know that. The fact that Cousins is based in Menomonee Falls is cool. They helped me a lot. People always asked me when I want you to branch out and you set yourself well if I open Keith's subs, who's gonna come to it? I mean, you know, it's Probably a popular name. Yeah. And me being locally owned is very helpful to me in my business. myself trying to let everyone know that we're locally owned is big for me. Sure, you can go in any sub shop in West Bend. Now there's nine sub shops. Yeah, I have to give a reason to come to my stores. The products good. Everything we use is pretty much Wisconsin based. And we work with that pretty heavily. And they're just a good company to work for.

Fuzz Martin 5:21

I was thinking maybe you'd open a dentist shop or that's a joke, because what's been has they have nine sub shops, however, we have 19 dentists

Keith Novotny 5:31

and they're all brand new buildings.

Fuzz Martin 5:33

And they're obviously doing well. They have really beautiful teeth. How challenging is it for you running to locations?

Keith Novotny 5:41

To be completely honest with you? It's not that bad. Okay. I do have a good crew. I have a tenured crew. Yeah. And it's I think it's very says a lot in this day and age. You don't see many tenured crews at at seasonal fast casual restaurants anymore. Sure. I have one managing Kewaskum. Tracy, that's been with me since day one. Oh, really? Yeah. Still there today? It's pretty awesome. Yeah. And I depend on them heavily. You know, it's people can comment me or do anything, but I'm nothing without them. Simple as that. You know, I tried to be the face of the franchise, obviously. And they don't get as much credit. I don't think as they deserve.

Fuzz Martin 6:11

How involved are you then running the day to day operations at each of the locations? Are you both stores every day? Or?

Keith Novotny 6:16

No, I'm typically in Kewa-. I mean, I'm mean sorry, West Bend, because it's my busiest store. Sure. Kewaskum is pretty self sufficient. I have managers up there. And I was at a meeting this morning with my manager there. And there's over 40 years of experience at that store. Oh, wow. Not just managing material. But just from being at that store. Yeah. So they're pretty self sufficient. And then in Kewaskum, like I said, it's a little busier. I mean, I'm starting my spending a little busier. Yeah. So I'm there a lot more. And crew at both stores is just actually pretty dang good.

Fuzz Martin 6:45

Sure. Right. Yes. Excellent. That's excellent. And what do you think your biggest challenge is running a business today?

Keith Novotny 6:52

When I say I have good crew? Yeah. It's still scarce. Sure. Yeah. Every everyone is challenging right now to get to get crew. Yeah, I would say back in the day. I never wanted like friends to work together. I completely didn't want it on that note. I want friends. Oh, yeah. You have more fun with your friends. Sure. You know, I watch my cameras a lot at work. I was telling him when I was 16. I was doing dumb stuff. I worked in the 33 location, and I would throw the football across the street, my buddy working on mobile. So the kids want to screw around and things obviously different with technology nowadays. But yeah, finding good crew is the staple of your business. I mean, you can have the best product in the world. People are not going to come back to your store if they're not going to get good service. And they get a bad sub once in a while. Yeah, but you know, if they're gonna treat it like crap, they're gonna go somewhere else.

Fuzz Martin 7:34

Right, exactly. What makes Cousin Subs a great place and specifically your stores a great place to work.

Keith Novotny 7:40

I think a lot of it is because I'm local. And I'm present. People like like seeing the owner, the kids like seeing the owner. The kid used to get intimidated, right when I walked in, and I'm like, Hey, man, it's we're good. You know, I was exactly Don't get scared. When I was 16 working at Cousins, I never met Bill (Specht) and Jim (Sheppard), who are the actual owners of Cousins. They're cousins. Oh, ironically. Weird, right?

Fuzz Martin 8:02

I didn't know if it was they were actually cousins or their last name was cousin.

Keith Novotny 8:06

No, they were cousins. But I was slicing meat. And I didn't know who this guy was. And he comes in the back. Just walks back there a suit and tie on and takes and takes a piece of ham I'm slicing is like he's like, "Keith, this is too heavy." I had no clue this guy was and I never want to be that person. Yeah, I want to be involved. I want every kid to come in and smile and not be intimidated when I go on to soar.

Fuzz Martin 8:25

So you don't wear suits, then, when you go in?

Keith Novotny 8:28

No. Don't you remember I have one tie? What what colors did you remember? Oh, yellow, yellow.

Fuzz Martin 8:33

Oh, yeah, that's right. Oh, no, it's been a long time. And I'm colorblind. So we'll just

Keith Novotny 8:37

as a white tie. anywhere you'd see me it was always you always wear white dice. Yes.

Fuzz Martin 8:45

Very formal. Keith, very formal. You have a daughter, you're gonna get her into the family business. Is she going to start baking bread for you soon?

Keith Novotny 8:51

We've talked about this. And I think I would fire my daughter in the first day, okay. I don't think she'll get in the family business. My wife, she has her own job. She has her own career. My parents actually helped me a lot. They're both retired him okay. My dad is my dad is at the store almost every day just

Fuzz Martin 9:05

I've seen you post on on Facebook that he's baked bread for you come in earlier, he's all morning and then

Keith Novotny 9:11

that I'm gonna be lost without that guy. Sure. He's amazing.

Fuzz Martin 9:13

I actually hired my daughter here at the agency. And I told her like, I've worked for the boss's kid before and I didn't like it. Sorry if that person is listening. So I'm always like, don't screw this up. There's an opportunity don't screw this up. Don't make it don't make us look bad. And she's been really really good at it. Like it and so it's it's fun to watch. But then also, when I was growing up my my dad on the business and he didn't want me working for the family business either. He was kind of like, just go do your thing. So so we're gonna send her off to college and she got some other experiences soon. If somebody wants to apply and come work at Cousins in West Bend or in kewaskum What's the best route for them to go?

Keith Novotny 9:50

You can either find me on Facebook, or you can apply online. I'm even on cousinssubs.com and find a link there or it's it's work. The number four cousins.com (work4cousins.com) is the actual web We're gonna go to Okay. I mean, we're always hiring. I'm actually I'm blessed to have enough crew right now. Sure. Okay, I'm in West Bend. I'm actually over overstocked. And this might sound weird, but I actually work a lot less than winter. Because I don't want to cut hours for anybody. Oh, yeah. Because I mean, we're slow in winter like most Yeah, fast casual restaurants. And the less I work, then, yes, I had to cut people's hours. Sure him and I need them. So sure. I tried to do whatever I can for my employee to keep them keep them on board. Excellent.

Fuzz Martin:

Switching gears a little bit. Now you do a lot in the community, you're always out way see you at events, you've got the sub trailer out there or or even just participating in nonprofits or donating and those kinds of things. What do you like to be involved with? And why do you feel it's important?

Keith Novotny:

With my trailer? We do a lot of fundraising with that lately, I've switched gears with that thing a lot. In the last couple of years, I use it more for marketing and actually clubs making money, okay, I have two kind of ideas with that where customers are or businesses or nonprofits can, I can drop it off, buy them with full of subs, and they can sell them and make a million dollars on the cost, then they sell it retail and make the money for it. Sure. Or I give them a percentage back of sales. I like doing that with a trailer. A lot of businesses are using me now to appreciate their employees. Yeah, it's nice. It's I mean, I can feed four new people in an hour. Oh, that's great. That's awesome. You know, it's it's pretty cool. And people love it. I mean, when when I roll up there and the employees come out with like, everyone's happy. Yeah, that's that was my you know? Absolutely. As far as like nonprofits and organizations. I like to help anybody. I give back as much as I can. If it's not money. If it's not, you know, monetary, it's food. Yeah, it can be anything. I'm in philosophy, never to say no. Sure. So if you need raffle prizes, or anything like that, I definitely get free subs, you know, stuff like that. If I do a lot of donation nights. I know Derek that works here. I'm doing one for his kid in a couple of weeks for his baseball team. Sure. The most popular ones, unfortunately, are people in need. Cancer benefits or something like that. I have a soft spot for that sounds kind of cheesy, but I hate when people are in trouble. Or I hate seeing people get hurt, right? Just I hate it. So I do whatever I can to lift up spirits. And then do people come in and you know, give me a hug and say thank you. And I was like, Oh, thank you. Like this is amazing. It really brings communities together. It's

Fuzz Martin:

Awesome. I think you have a pretty rabid social following of people who are willing to jump in and support when you say you know this person needs help people tend to jump in and go go all in to support that. Yeah, it's great. It's a it's a good picture of our community and the people who are willing to support others around here we goes back to that local park.

Keith Novotny:

Yeah, we have a great community here. It's when something bad happens in this community these rallies together. And it's it's just cool to see the other night I don't know if you saw my Facebook posts, but I went to Firehouse Subs because I know they're locally owned and I like subs and people walking in there and like I think that's a kind of bias and people think that's weird. I put on there like no other bar owners go to different restaurants. I think it's just because I'm the sub guy you know like they think it's weird that I went to the one stop shop but

Fuzz Martin:

You just wanted to try some different bread right? Yeah fact to when you said that people love when the sub truck pulls up because subs bring smiles but even here at Epic when we boxes subs come in and we we buy a box and then we eat like a third of it and then send out on Slack subs are subs on the uh in the cafeteria and people flock to them there's there's never any that I

Keith Novotny:

can tell you guys EPIC Creative orders a lot of sandwiches we did. I mean we do but the mentioned milkshakes right now man in there.

Fuzz Martin:

I know. I know. Yes. And shakes and the reubens are back in pretty good. Yeah, really. They are really good. I like to try all the new stuff that you guys have coming up whenever it is going on. So Cousin Subs, Paradise Drive in West Bend and Fond du Lac Avenue in Kewaskum. Keith, thanks for all you do for the community and congrats on running this for as long as you have. Man. We were children.

Isn't that crazy?

That is nuts. Yeah, I was. I think 20 So

Keith Novotny:

I miss you on the radio. Well, we're right here.

Fuzz Martin:

You could find me anywhere. Okay, but anytime. Thanks for coming on. Appreciate it but take care.

Thank you again. Keith Novotny owner of Cousin Subs in West Bend on Paradise Drive and on Fond du Lac Avenue in Kewaskum. I appreciate you joining me on this week's episode. If you ever want to get in touch with me, email me fifteenwithfuzz that's fifteen spelled out fifteenwithfuzz@gmail.com you can also find me on the big social channels including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @fifteenwithfuzz again, "fifteen" is spelled out. New episodes drop every Monday at midnight. Thank you so much for listening and we'll talk to you next week right here on Fifteen Minutes with Fuzz.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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Fifteen Minutes with Fuzz
Showcasing the positive things happening in Washington County, Wisconsin.
Fifteen Minutes with Fuzz is sheds light on all the great things going on in and around Washington County, Wisconsin. The host, Fuzz Martin, is a local business owner (EPIC Creative) and a former radio personality (92.5 WBWI - now Buzz Country). New episodes launch on Tuesday mornings. https://fifteenwithfuzz.com

Whether you're in West Bend, Kewaskum, Slinger, Hartford, Germantown, Richfield, Jackson, or anywhere else in the area, 15 Minutes with Fuzz serves the community with fun and positive people, places, events, and attractions.

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Fuzz Martin

Fuzz Martin is a partner and Chief Strategy Officer at EPIC Creative in West Bend, Wis.