Before Chicago was inundated with chain submarines from other towns, Mr. Submarine stood alone while offering up value-priced sandwiches and garnering a loyal customer base. The chain celebrated its 40th anniversary on Monday and continues to serve Chicago-style sandwiches at its 25 locations scattered around the city and suburbs.
The family-owned business debuted in 1975 with a store in the beloved Old Chicago shopping center/amusement park. Old Chicago shuttered in 1980 in suburban Bolingbrook, but the success inside the mall spread to a standalone location in Berwyn. During its heyday there were probably 32 Mr. Submarines, said Nick Tzoumas, the chain's general manager.
Tzoumas' father, Gus, used his non-stop energy and work ethic to found the chain and gain a cult following. For example, take last week as basketball fans reminisced over this 1989 Mr. Submarine commercial shoot featuring Bulls' legend Scottie Pippen. The NBA Hall of Famer celebrated his 50th birthday last week, so this video began making the rounds on the web. "Let's have a party," indeed.
Tzoumas remembers the commercial shoot in north suburban Deerfield, at the Berto Center where the team used to practice. But what stuck out wasn't what cameras captured: Michael Jordan hovered on the sidelines watching his younger teammate and chatted with Gus Tzoumas.
"My dad was razzing Jordan," the younger Tzoumas recalled. "He asked him: 'When are you going to leave those clowns at McDonald's?'"
While Mr. Submarine never attracted MJ to be their spokesman, their subs provide the textbook entry to what defines a Chicago-style submarine sandwich. Start with the bread: There's never been any scandal regarding the ingredients from Turano's bakery. Mr. Sub uses Turano rolls and shredded lettuce, the latter which Tzoumas called a "telltale sign" of a Chicago sub. There's also a homemade vinaigrette and plenty of meat — definitely more than from a chain joint.
"That's kind of our thumbprint on the sub industry," Tzoumas said.
Obviously, with a name like "Mr. Submarine," the chain focused on sandwiches, and for the most part, the menu's remained consistent and simple — at least at city locations. But they expanded the menu in the suburbs, adding items like mozzarella sticks. It's an interesting time for the chain, as Tzoumas has hopes of sprucing some locations up, admitting the spots would benefit from an overhaul. He sees how larger chains like Wendy's have refreshed their locations with a new restaurant design, and while he's not suggesting Mr. Submarine go through a similar transformation, he sees opportunities to modernize.
But while they ponder renovations, for now they'll concentrate on keeping costs low to provide a better value for customers, as most in the Loop are familiar with employee handing out coupons. "I think people who know food will always know Mr. Submarine," Tzoumas says. "It's just a matter of people giving us a chance...don't be scared to come in because our food is top-notch and always will be."