Cousins Subs focuses on making 'local' central to the brand

| by S.A. Whitehead
Cousins Subs focuses on making 'local' central to the brand

It's a truth that reveals itself over and over again that sometimes the best of everything can be found right in your own backyard. When it comes to that notion and the ever-growing foodservice industry's emphasis on local sourcing, the Wisconsin-based sub brand, Cousins, stands as a shining, dairy-dipped example of this subject in action. 

Cousins has always been a brand with its heart in the Badger State, but back in 2012 it really took a deeper dip into its "Wisconsin-ness" when the chain added the state's renowned cheese curds to the menu. That worked so well, the brand expanded soon its locally sourced product pool in 2015 to offer all Wisconsin-based cheeses, as well as something Badger State-esque to wash it down with in the form of the state's locally created Sprecher root beer. 

The timing was not only perfect to sync with the world's growing interest in locally based goods, but also to tap into customers' obvious love for their hometown products. The proof of that lies directly in the chain's bottom line that showed the following: 

•    In the first five years, Wisconsin Cheese Curds grew to make up 18 percent of side order sales for the chain or about 700 pounds of curds a day systemwide.
•    Since the introduction of Sprecher Root Beer, that local brand has gained a growing share of the beverage cup at the chain and is now second only to Coca-Cola in sales there. 

In fact, today Cousins serves products from 14 of the state's companies including, the aforementioned products as well as Best Maid Cookies, Knaus Cheese and Klement's Sausage Company, among others, according to information from leadership at the brand provided to QSRweb. 

We wanted to know more about how a successful QSR concept makes local sourcing work in daily practice, so we recently ran a few questions on that subject by Cousins Marketing Vice President Justin McCoy, as well as one of the chain's locally sourced suppliers, Wisconsin sausage maker, Johnsonville and its field sales marketing representative, Brooke Wagner. 

Q: When did Cousins officially make this strong commitment to local sourcing in the company's home state and how does that materialize in daily operation? 

Cousins: As a Wisconsin-based company, Cousins Subs historically has sourced a number of products from companies within the state of Wisconsin and the Midwest. However, we never outwardly promoted this fact. With the redesign of our menu board several years ago and rebranding efforts, we made the decision to highlight the fact that we have sourced locally throughout our history. 

With the move to serve only Wisconsin cheeses, we entered into a partnership with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board to feature their logo on our menu board signifying the use of only cheeses made in state. Additionally, we formalized a partnership with Sprecher Brewing Company based out of Milwaukee to feature their craft root beer on our menu along with their logo.

We believe that quality has no substitute and strive to offer our guests only the finest meats, cheeses and veggies. By featuring these products and other locally-sourced items, we are reinforcing this commitment that is highlighted in our creative assets, messaging strategy and new store design.  

Q: How would you describe the key nature of Wisconsin "born and bred" products? 

Johnsonville: Johnsonville has been in Wisconsin for 73 years. It's where we started in 1945 and we are still proudly headquartered here today. 

Our founders lived in Milwaukee before moving up to the village of Johnsonville. There is something special to be said about the journey of starting, building and growing in the state of Wisconsin. Not only are our business roots here, but the people of Wisconsin are great to work with. Ralph Stayer, owner and chairman of Johnsonville, often talks about the industrious nature of the people of Wisconsin and it's true. People here have a strong desire to learn, grow, be successful and contribute. It's a great place to run a business because of the people.

Q: Sounds like basic American Heartland qualities. How does that come across in the Cousins brand? 

Cousins:Our commitment to locally-sourced high-quality products is central to our value proposition. Not only do we have pride in our Wisconsin and Midwest roots, we also are steadfast in delivering upon our belief that quality has no substitute when it comes to our menu. 
Highlighting items that are locally-sourced both in Wisconsin and the Midwest is a differentiator. Wisconsin is seen as the "cheese state," and offering only cheeses made here is a value proposition both here and throughout the country. In addition, partnering with nationally recognized Midwest-based brands, such as Klement's, Kronos, Johnsonville and Sprecher Brewing Company, on both permanent and limited-time-only products, further solidifies our commitment to quality.   

Q: Does this local commitment extend to Cousins' core values and mission?

Cousins: Our mission statement is "We Believe in Better" through the continual improvement in everything we do. When it comes to the food we serve, quality has no substitute. While others seek to create value by cutting back, we choose to improve and offer more. ... While our Wisconsin connection is not directly referred to in our mission statement, I would emphasize that we take pride in our Midwestern roots and work ethic. We feel that where we come from is reflected in the values and foundation of our brand that are defined by our mission statement.  

Q: How do you perhaps capitalize on these qualities amidst the current very strong restaurant industry push for local sourcing?

Cousins: Cousins has worked this into a campaign entitled "Local at Heart" that has run on traditional broadcast for the past year. We will work it in to additional messaging when it makes sense. Also, Cousins reflects this messaging through in-state partnerships with organizations including the Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Bucks, University of Wisconsin Athletics and the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.

Q: Conversely, how do these local connections make your businesses better? 

Johnsonville: Both Cousins and Johnsonville are Wisconsin staples. We were both founded in the state and are family-owned, therefore a partnership between one of Wisconsin's strongest sub chains and one of the strongest sausage chains just makes sense. We are both deeply involved in the community, and greatly believe in giving back to the people and communities we call home.

It's been a great long-term partnership between two local companies. Cousins Subs was the first sub chain to understand the value of our sliced items and by putting the two brands together these values are enhanced. 

The process leading up to the first sub build we did with Cousins took many years. When we first started exploring sausage menu options for Cousins we looked at offering sausage in link form. After some time and through our creative partnership, we ended up going with a bias sliced sausage version of our product — something that has always been common in the sandwich world, but not usually how we think in the sausage world.

It was a great evolution and a wonderful example of a collaborative partnership. Ultimately, the decision was made for Cousins to feature the Italian sausage slices on top of their steak sub. Following this, they tried the Brat slices and Cousins has included this in their limited-time-only line up almost every year since. 

Photos: Cousins

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Communications, Customer Service / Experience, Equipment & Supplies, Food & Beverage, Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Operations Management, Sandwich, Social Responsibility, Sustainability

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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