ROCKINGHAM — Larry Chandler has seen a little bit of everything in his 35 years in the restaurant business. He’s worked in bustling metropolitan areas like Charlotte, and he’s built restaurants in smaller cities like Lumberton.
Something about Rockingham sets it apart from many of those areas.
“This is my kind of town,” Chandler said.
Chandler is the owner of 30 Firehouse Subs restaurants throughout North Carolina and South Carolina. His 31st restaurant is set to open next Thursday in Richmond Plaza.
Firehouse Subs is a national chain that specializes in hot and cold subs and salads. Two former firemen founded the chain in 1994 in Jacksonville, Fla., and the business now has locations in 45 states.
Chandler opened his first Firehouse restaurant in 2004. His list of locations includes 13 restaurants around Charlotte, 13 around Columbia, S.C, one in Lumberton and one in Florence, S.C. Chandler also operates a Firehouse Subs in Myrtle Beach, with a second location soon to come to that area.
Chandler saw Rockingham as an enticing location because of the area’s small-town feel and the support locals show for new businesses.
“If we open a restaurant in Charlotte, it might take a while for someone to notice that we’re actually open,” Chandler said. “When we open in a town this size, people know what we’re doing.”
Bringing Firehouse to Rockingham wasn’t easy. In early 2019, Chandler signed a lease for a new building under construction in the Plaza. He originally anticipated that the restaurant would open in December 2019, but the process was delayed. Heavy rain slowed the construction of the new building, and the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the project back even further.
“And here we are,” Chandler said Thursday while sitting down with a blueprint of his nearly-completed restaurant. “Everything happens for a reason, so we just roll with the punches.”
The construction part of of the project is complete, and the dining room is almost ready for next week’s grand opening. But the COVID-19 challenge is still in the spotlight. As with all other restaurants operating under Phase 2 of Governor Roy Cooper’s plan to reopen North Carolina’s economy, Firehouse can only open its dining room to 50% of its stated fire capacity. The restaurant also has to follow social distancing and sanitation regulations and guidelines.
Gov. Roy Cooper could decide early next week to move the state to Phase 3, which means those restrictions would be loosened. Chandler said the Rockingham Firehouse is prepared to work with coronavirus-related restrictions, and the restaurant’s drive-thru window and take-out options will help keep the dining room less crowded.
In addition to making sure the restaurant is Phase 2-compliant, Chandler is also focusing on making sure his staff is ready to go before the doors open next Thursday.
“The expectation is we’ll have a well-trained staff,” Chandler said. “My biggest thing is people — our staff and our customers. That’s my biggest concern every day. Everyone’s going to work well together and provide great customer service.
“That’s the key,” he continued. “We can have the greatest sandwich in the world, but if we’re not nice to people and thank them and welcome them into Firehouse, then why would they come back?”
Staying true to its roots, Firehouse Subs is known for its support of first responders. Through the Firehouse Public Safety Foundation, Firehouse has raised over $50 million to provide equipment, training and resources for first responders. A portion of each purchase at Firehouse Subs restaurants benefits the foundation.
“That’s an exciting part of our business that we’re very proud of,” Chandler said. “That’s our way of giving back to the community. No matter what kind of day we’ve had, that’s something we feel good about every day we go home.”
Reach Brandon Tester at [email protected] or 910-817-2671. Follow him on Twitter @BrandonTester.