By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published May 24, 2011 at 9:05 AM

Even though Cousins Subs president and COO Christine Specht is the daughter of the company's founder, it wasn't a given she'd someday lead the popular Milwaukee sub chain.

Rather, Specht spread her wings, only to return to the organization a decade ago to head its HR department. She's been been president of the company for the last three years, and in that time, Specht has overseen a new brand identity campaign that has ushered her in as Cousins' spokesperson. In her early 30s, Specht admits she's relatively young to run a company of 150 stores – and growing – but Specht says the new creative reinforces that her business is a family one that focuses on quality and dining experience.

Specht lives in Brookfield, but Cousins is based in Menomonee Falls. Halfway through our interview, an announcement came over the intercom. "Attention, there's free bread in our training kitchen. Help yourself."

"This is the beauty of having a training kitchen here," says Specht. "When we have new franchisees or store managers, they're making subs."

In this latest Milwaukee Talks, we discussed coming home, differentiating Cousins from its competitors and the growth strategy of the 40-year-old local business that hangs its hat on "better bread, better subs." Tell me the Cousins story, in your own words.

Christine Specht: The short story is that it was founded by my parents and my dad's cousin in 1972. My dad and his cousin are from Atlantic City, so when my dad moved out here and married my mom, this is where his home was. He was in the printing business but missed the East Coast style sub sandwich, so he recruited his cousin to come on out and open the first Cousins Subs. That's where you get the name; they really are cousins.

Cousins grew organically from there. They didn't have a master plan of developing more and more units. They really just wanted to provide a business for their families and do something they really loved. It worked, and it was successful, and Milwaukee really caught on.

OMC: Back in the day, there weren't tons of sub options in Milwaukee, were there?

CS: There are so many more competitors today than there were back then. Really, the main competitor would've been Suburpia. We were very fortunate to have the market share in the Milwaukee area. Now, Subway is the giant.

OMC: You didn't just walk into the role of president of this company, did you?

CS: I was working in the restaurants when I was 15 – I couldn't wait. I worked at our Germantown location, and it was great. But there was no dinnertime discussions with my family where they said, "One day you're going to be doing this."

I have an older brother who is a franchisee of three restaurants. Same with him – he grew up in the stores and moved on, and my parents allowed me to explore my own interests. I have a bachelor's degree in criminology and law studies from Marquette. I volunteered for a year after college with homeless families in Florida. I went to grad school at American University with a degree in public administration. I held two internships that had some HR focus, but I didn't know at the time the importance that would play in my entree back into Cousins Subs.

I had the opportunity to come back to Cousins professionally in 2001, running the HR department. I felt it was the right time to be part of the business again. Even then, there still wasn't this succession plan.

OMC: Did it feel like you were working for the family business at that point?

CS: It always feels like a family business. I'm the president and COO; my dad is the CEO, so I report to him. Really, we have a nice group of individuals at the corporate office with a lot of tenure.

OMC: You have about 150 stores, but they're mostly in the Midwest. I did see a Cousins once in Phoenix, though. What's your growth strategy?

CS: We have 16 corporately owned stores here in the Milwaukee area, and the rest are franchised. That is our desired method for growth for the future. We really try to focus on contiguous growth. Our next major strategy of development would be Minnesota and Arizona, because we have some presence there.

OMC: It seems like 150 stores is a lot. Are you among the big guys in the sub world?

CS: We're tiny! Subway has over 33,000 units worldwide. I think Jimmy John's has over 1,000 units.

OMC: You're in your own TV spots and you have a new logo. Tell me about the decision to be included your creative.

CS: The decision for new brand identity and new look that includes our history is to give people the whole experience. We're not just selling sandwiches, we're saying, "Hey, we're a local company, we love our guests. Come in and have a great experience. We'll efficiently serve you in a clean restaurant with great food." The branding was rolled out in October 2009, and that takes time.

OMC: Are people surprised to see that someone so relatively young is running this company?

CS: The decision to place me as the brand's spokesperson was launched with my television commercials that started in February of this year. We felt it was a good opportunity to say, "Here is this person. She might be a little bit young, but she's been running the organization for nearly three years, and here's her plan." It's a real family business. People really like that and can identify with that.

OMC: Are you having fun with it?

CS: It's great. It's a lot of fun but you develop a thick skin. There are great opportunities to get out into the public more and connect with our franchisees.

OMC: Why is that when I go to Jimmy John's it takes 10 seconds to get my sub, but Cousins takes five or 10 minutes?

CS: The ways that we're trying to differentiate ourselves is that our subs are made by people who really care about what they're doing. We have a more complex menu than, say, Jimmy John's. They don't do salads or hot subs or soups, but you should never be waiting 10 minutes for your products. They've really mastered that market, and we really want to master the whole experience. We do feel like the quality of our food is superior to our competitors.

OMC: Is there a corporate mandate to speed it up?

CS: Well, we certainly have standards for speed of service, because no matter how good the product is, people don't want to wait all day. We support our stores, and work, coach and train our franchisees on making sure they are able to produce that product in a timely fashion. But we're not going to come out and say we'll be faster than Jimmy John's; that's not our shtick. And Subway, they can push a lot, and sometimes it's good. They have the healthy halo with Jared and simply by being in the sandwich segment, it's helped.

OMC: Is bread still Cousins' angle?

CS: Better bread, better subs! All these years, we still hear that today. With our brand launch, there's the guarantee. So if you don't like your sub, it's on us. We're so proud of what we serve that we'll stand behind it.

OMC: What's your favorite sub?

CS: Lately, I've been eating a half a turkey, and I add cheese with easy mayo. It's so fresh, it's so crisp. I love our cheese steaks and meatballs. I'm not too terribly fussy ...

OMC: Does Cousins taste the same as it did when you were a kid?

CS: Yes, the recipes are the same. The bread is our recipe and is baked in each store, twice a day. We've had long-standing relationships with our suppliers.

OMC: What's next for you personally and professionally?

CS: I love what I do! If you're spending the best years of life, spending your waking hours at work, gosh, you'd better love what you do. What's next for Cousins? Growth. We want to grow. We're not satisfied at 150 units, but we want to grow responsibly.

OMC: Do you like living in the Milwaukee area?

CS: We do. My husband and I live in the Brookfield area. We love to golf and fish when we can. No children yet, we were just married last July. We have a dog named Sherman. We keep very busy. We're very social and we love food. Some people see food as fuel, others see food as social experiences. That's the category we see it in.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.