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Peter-Cancro-RLC Joanna Fantozzi
Jersey Mike's CEO Peter Cancro sits down to discuss leadership style with Restaurant Business editor-in-chief Jonathan Maze.

Jersey Mike’s CEO Peter Cancro wins the 2024 Restaurant Leader of the Year award

Decades of consistency and heart: Informa’s Restaurant Leadership Conference award recognizes Cancro for ‘embodying the pinnacle of our industry’

Jersey Mike’s CEO Peter Cancro was named the 2024 Restaurant Leader of the Year at Informa’s Restaurant Leadership Conference, as presented by NRN sister publication, Restaurant Business. Cancro — selected by editors for “embodying the pinnacle of our industry” — is well-known for taking the sandwich chain from the original Mike’s Subs shop on the Jersey Shore that he bought 49 years ago, to nearly 3,000 locations today.

Cancro’s leadership style and operational approach as the long-term CEO of Jersey Mike’s can be summed up by two different differentiators of the New Jersey-based company’s brand. One is the Jersey Mike’s Day of Giving, which takes place every year on the last Wednesday of March, when all participating stores donate 100% of the day’s sales to a local charity of their choice. In 2024, Jersey Mike’s raised $25 million for charity, even though participation is not mandatory for franchisees:

“We started to give and make a difference in 1975… and now the marketing experts will tell you that cause-related marketing is what we should be doing, so I guess we’ll keep doing that,” Cancro said in a fireside chat with Restaurant Business editor-in-chief Jonathan Maze. “The owners really get it…it’s not mandatory. It’s not in the contract, but everyone gives 100% of their proceeds that last Wednesday in March.”

Cancro is also well-known for visiting his stores often, and every time he does, he gets behind the counter, introduces himself to the store employees, and begins slicing the meat himself. But why does he do it?

“We always had the Wall Street guys come down from New York to the Jersey Shore, and they always said to me, ‘Peter, what are you doing? Are you making subs?’ And I would go, ‘yeah, I guess I am!’” Cancro said. “Our leadership style with pretty much everyone in the company is the same way: we pull people along.”

A major theme of the discussion with Cancro was consistency: The company has been doing an annual Day of Giving since 1975. The original menu with nine subs has not changed much since the ‘80s, when the company added cheesesteaks for the first time, and every store still hand-slices their own deli meats to order. Jersey Mike’s is so steeped in tradition, that when the company does switch things up, it’s a big deal. For example, when Cancro wanted to spend $175 million to remodel franchisees’ restaurants in 2019 and 2020, “everyone thought I was crazy,” he said. But after the initial investment, sales ended up increasing by 15%, unit volumes were up 60%, and it took only two years to pay back the initial investment, instead of the anticipated seven or eight years.

“Every year and every day, we just show up, and you see the slow incremental growth,” Cancro said. “Then all of a sudden, we look around and say, ‘huh, I think we got something here….’ The past three years we hit the 300-store mark every year and we still think it’s consistent slow growth that does the trick.”

Now, the company is on track to reach $4 billion in sales and 3,000 units in 2024, with international expansion in Canada and Europe in the pipeline. With big numbers on the line, there have been rumors swirling that private equity firm Blackstone (or another private equity company) is in talks to buy Jersey Mike’s, for a deal reportedly valued at $8 billion. Cancro, however, only coyly addressed the rumors, stating that the company is not for sale right now, and then immediately correcting himself by saying that Jersey Mike’s is “always for sale.”  

Contact Joanna at [email protected]m

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