Calls for a boycott of the Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches chain are circulating on social media this week after photos emerged showing founder and CEO Jimmy John Liautaud posing in what appear to be trophy hunting shots with big game animals.
The criticism directed at Liautaud across social media channels this week demonstrates how closely leaders of restaurant chains are tied to brand image.
“Today’s business leaders are under a microscope like never before, due to cell phone cameras and social media, not to mention a general decline in most journalistic standards,” said Rick Van Warner, president of The Parquet Group, based in Orlando, Fla., a restaurant strategy and crisis management firm.
The circulating hunting photos, which were reportedly published in 2011 in the blog Smile Politely, re-emerged and began spreading a few days after a lion from a protected habitat was killed by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer, sparking a wave of outrage at the notion of big game hunting for sport.
Officials with Champaign, Ill.-based Jimmy John’s said they were unable to comment as of presstime.
According to Business Insider, a watermark on the photos suggests they were taken during a 2010 hunting safari. A magazine called “The Hunting Report,” which documents big game expeditions, also has records of hunts by a Jimmy John Liautaud, according to the Business Insider report.
The hunting photos have circulated widely on Twitter, with many calling for a boycott of the sandwich chain Liautaud founded in 1983, which has since grown to include more than 2,000 restaurants, most of which are franchisee operated.
The social media attack comes at a bad time for Jimmy John’s because the company has reportedly been preparing for an initial public offering.
Jimmy John’s is the third-largest sandwich chain in the NRN Top 100 ranking of chains, following Subway and Arby’s. The company has had growing financial success; in fiscal 2014, the chain recorded an increase of nearly 20 percent in U.S. systemwide sales to $1.8 billion, and a 17-percent increase in unit count.
Jimmy John’s is known for selling “freaky good” sandwiches “freaky fast,” and Liautaud as the quirky and irreverent brand spokesman is attributed with maintaining that consistent message.
This media attention isn’t new for Liautaud, an outspoken man not shy of expressing his opinion. He once threatened to move his company headquarters from Illinois because of a state tax increase.
While understandable that a restaurant chain would want to separate from the recreational activities of a CEO, especially something that happened in the past, Van Warner said, “Smart CEOs understand that they’re the face of the brand and don’t gamble with their personal and brand reputations by engaging in risky behaviors.
“CEOs, politicians and other public figures are held to a higher standard and must consider how personal decisions or hobbies may reflect on their businesses,” he said.
“Embracing and serving everyone is important to succeeding in the restaurant business, which is why it is wise for leaders to not take sides on polarizing issues.”
Linda Duke, CEO of hospitality marketing firm Duke Marketing LLC, based in San Rafael, Calif., agreed, adding that Jimmy John’s may exacerbate the situation by declining to respond.
“‘No Comment’ only makes things worse and should only be used if there is a police investigation,” said Duke. “In this case, Jimmy John’s should explain what the photos of their founder are, and why they are appearing. This is a case where the public wants transparency and telling the truth is important.”