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Blimpie’s Sub Surfaces for Testing

Times Staff Writer

New York’s most famous sub has surfaced in Orange County.

Blimpie, the submarine sandwich chain that claims to make “America’s Best-Dressed Sandwich,” has begun testing prototype California stores in Orange County and has big plans to expand statewide over the next few years.

International Blimpie Corp., the Manhattan company with 230 Blimpie restaurants in 14 states, has licensed Costa Mesa-based BCO Corp. to own and operate Blimpies throughout much of the Western United States.

About 80 locations are planned for Southern California over the next five years.

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This marks Blimpie’s second West Coast swing.

Eight years ago it opened six stores, in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose. Today, only the San Jose store remains. Chuck Leaness, Blimpie’s vice president of franchising, explains, “It was too difficult to keep an eye on something from 3,000 miles away.”

This time around, however, a franchising office has been placed within minutes of the planned company-owned stores. The first Orange County Blimpie opened last month near Ocean View High School in Huntington Beach, and another is scheduled to open next month in Santa Ana near South Coast Plaza.

If all goes according to plan, BCO will open four Blimpies in Orange County this year and post revenues of $625,000. By 1987, the company expects to have 23 Orange County operations--about half of them franchises--with total sales of $6.5 million.

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“The fast-food market may be saturated in Orange County, but it’s overcrowded with everything but good sandwiches,” said G. Alan Moll, president and chief executive of BCO. He said the company should be profitable by the middle of next year, and BCO expects to expand into San Diego and Los Angeles counties by 1989 and post revenues of $24 million.

The strategic move back into California is clearly an attempt by the sandwich chain to cash in on the state’s tremendous fast-food market. Unlike most states, California’s mild climate assures fast-food operators year-round business. This is not the case back East, where Blimpie operators often find winter business washed away with the rain and snow.

The move also comes at a time when Orange County’s fast-food chains are waging a ferocious battle for business. After months of slumping sales, some chains have boosted advertising, slashed food prices or tried to entice customers with coupon campaigns. Blimpie executives believe the ongoing hamburger wars will tarnish the reputation of the fast-food hamburger industry and land business on their doorstep.

Claims May Hurt

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“As customers keep hearing the claims from these hamburger chains that fried is bad and grease is no good, they will eventually believe them and look elsewhere,” said Moll. The former senior vice president of W. R. Grace & Co.'s restaurant group believes sandwich shops may be where they’ll look first.

But even more critical to Blimpie’s plans for success here, the 21-year-old chain is target-marketing new dishes for the California diner. Take vegetarian submarines, for example. This salami-less sub is stuffed with the likes of avocado, tomatoes and sprouts.

And unlike Blimpie’s East Coast stores, where side orders are basically limited to cole slaw and potato salad, California Blimpies feature the likes of seafood salads and antipastos. The California stores even offer nutrition-conscious customers their subs on seven-grain wheat bread.

So concerned are Blimpie officials with projecting a positive California image that the word “submarine” does not appear anywhere on their menu or in its advertising. After all, few customers equate submarine sandwiches with nutrition, and Californians are among the most nutrition-conscious fast-food eaters in the world, analysts says.

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“A healthy submarine almost sounds like a contradiction, but Blimpie makes a pretty good product” said Dennis I. Forst, a securities analyst with Seidler Amdec Securities Inc., Los Angeles.

Not Easy

Still, Blimpie will not have an easy go of it in California, Forst said.

Unlike McDonald’s and Burger King, where products are pre-weighed and pre-measured, Blimpie is far less exact. While customers watch, employees slice the meats and cheeses and layer them into sandwiches. Moll says that customers enjoy the show, but Forst says that a heavy-handed sandwich maker can inadvertently slice into the store’s profits. “It can be a problem when kids are in control of the food that goes over the counter,” he said.

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Yet another stumbling block--especially with the teen market--is the relatively high cost of Blimpie’s fast food. Many of the sandwiches, some of which cost up to $3.69, are twice the price of McDonald’s Big Macs. Blimpie even charges extra for pickles. “They run the risk of stubbing their toes at these prices,” said Seidler Amdec’s Forst.

Moll admits that the typical $4 customer check at Blimpie “pretty much takes us out of the kids’ category.” The company is more concerned about appealing to the adult who eats a fast food lunch. That’s about 65% of the company’s market, he said.

But in appealing to the California adult, not only is Blimpie offering a selection of healthy foods, but it is serving adult beverages like beer and wine coolers that can’t be found at the local Jack-in-the-Box.

Tough Competitor

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One of Blimpie’s toughest competitors in California is Togo’s Eatery, a subsidiary of San Jose-based MTC Management Inc. The five-year-old chain has 231 stores nationwide, including 15 in California. John Anzaloni, vice president of Togo’s, said that despite the new competition from Blimpie, Togo’s plans rapid expansion in California. “We’re not worried about Blimpie,” he said. “People are getting tired of hamburgers and chicken. Sandwich shops fill that niche.”

Blimpie’s founders, Anthony Conza and Peter DeCarlo, knew they were on to something special in 1964 when they opened the first Blimpie store in Hoboken, N.J., and customers lined up for the sandwiches. The chain quickly spread to Manhattan where it has since sprouted on some of the Big Apple’s busiest corners. The company went public in 1983, the same year that Esquire gave Blimpie’s hero sandwich its highest rating, calling it “a fast food you can eat often without worry.”

One of Blimpie’s biggest worries here is getting the name recognition on the West Coast that it enjoys back East. Some New Yorkers could sooner locate a Blimpie than they could find Carnegie Hall. Blimpie’s most prosperous--and initial--Manhattan location at West 55th Street and 8th Avenue, is just a block-and-a-half from the world famous concert hall.

But mention Blimpie to most native Californians, and they’ll peer up in the clouds for a floating machine with the word Goodyear flashing across the front. Moll hopes to change all that. The idea is to concentrate enough Blimpies in a single area--central Orange County--so that the name will catch on here. “We need to get identification in one area first before we can develop in others,” Moll said.

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So far, the name recognition has surprised Moll. “People slam on the breaks and ask if this is the same Blimpie from back East. When I tell them it is, they can’t believe it.”

Although its local advertising campaign will be limited to newspapers and direct mail for a while, in New York Blimpie recently began flashing 10-second television spots. In these commercials, the company’s motto about selling the nation’s “best dressed” sandwich is visually displayed by a submarine sandwich decked in, of course, a bow tie.


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