Slack’s Hoagie Shack

Dennis Slack has been in the quick-service food industry since he was in high school. He worked hard and saved his money, and by the time he was 22, he had $28,000 in the bank. With those savings and a home equity loan from his parents – as well as all of the knowledge he had acquired about the business – he opened Slack’s Hoagie Shack in 1988 in Philadelphia. The 2,000-square-foot shop had an extensive menu, and it didn’t take long for customers to realize that Slack’s Hoagie Shack wasn’t just another sandwich shop.

“We are the same today as we were on our very first day,” Slack stresses. “We never cut back on quality – that is the key. Our menu may have changed somewhat as customers’ tastes change, but we still use the same rolls and the same meat suppliers. We don’t change the high-quality products that we offer, and we are able to build our business because of the quality we have. Other companies are all over the board, and it hurts their business. We don’t skimp on quality, and that helps us get through hard times.”

In fact, he says, during the last two years when the economy was down, Slack’s Hoagie Shack’s sales were up. In addition to dine-in service, it offers carry out, delivery and catering, and each facet of the business remains busy. Customers continue to flock to the operation’s locations – there are 15 in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware, as well as one in Georgia, and four more will open in the next six months. Slack says at least 10 more locations will open in the next three years, and the consistent focus on high quality – in all aspects of the operation – will ensure that happens.

‘No Magic Bullet’

In any business, maintaining a consistent level of quality across multiple locations is not easy, but Slack says the process is simple, although it must be an ongoing focus. He frequently visits each location, and employees are instructed on the company’s culture – that only the best products and service will do. Employees use customers’ first names and work to get to know them, which breeds familiarity, Slack notes.

Of course, Slack’s Hoagie Shack does sometimes make mistakes, but it doesn’t let those mistakes hamper its quality service. At the stores, he says, employees may get an order wrong, or a customer may order one thing but mean another – like asking for turkey when they really want tuna – or a customer might not like what he or she ordered. The reason they are unhappy doesn’t matter; employees know to do all they can to fix the problem. Profitability, he says, comes from getting customers in the door the first time, and doing all that is possible to get them to come back.

“To live up to our quality reputation, we have to back our high-quality products with high-quality customer service,” he says. “If a customer has a problem, we look at it as an opportunity to show them how we’re different. If people call or email with a complaint, all of that goes directly to me so I can handle it.”

Continuous improvement is very important at Slack’s Hoagie Shack, he says. The company accomplishes that through training, but Slack also spends a lot of time reading trade magazines and books, and talking to other executives to get new ideas about how to serve its customers. “There is no magic bullet in customer service,” he says. “If you want to do it right, it’s a day-in, day-out philosophy. A lot of it is about the product, but it’s just as much about how you stand behind that product.”

Big Fans

Slack’s Hoagie Shack has been recognized with the “Best of Philly” award from Philadelphia Magazine many times, Slack says, and the company wants to live up to that honor. “There are a lot of great places for people to eat in Philly,” he stresses. “We differentiate ourselves through service.”

Part of that service is responding to consumer trends by adding new items to the menu. Slack and employees monitor trends on TV and online, he says, and franchisees come up with new ideas, as well. When an idea seems feasible and a good fit with the Slack Hoagie Shack menu, Slack and a group of franchisees spend a lot of time taste testing and developing the new item. When it meets the company’s standards, a few stores will offer it for a limited time to see how the public responds, and if people respond well, it is added to the company-wide menu.

“We want to be proud of the food we serve, so we have to do it the best,” Slack says.

This focus on quality not only attracts customers, but also investors and franchisees. For the first time, Slack’s Hoagie Shack has investors to help it develop stores in other areas of the country, with a focus on California, Atlanta, Florida, the Carolinas and northern New Jersey. The company’s systems are structured to handle many more franchisees within the operation.

“We work closely with franchisees, which helps the odds – we help them get through everything that can go wrong with an opening,” Slack explains. “Our systems are set up well so we can produce the same product all over, in every location.

“Our customers are our biggest fans, and they fuel our growth,” he continues. “So far, it’s customers who have started franchises. They’ve liked Slack’s Hoagie Shack so much that they wanted one in their area.”

Slack believes that in the next five years, Slack’s Hoagie Shack will have about 25 stores in the region around Philadelphia, and 100 stores throughout the rest of the country. The company has the infrastructure to ensure its products remain fresh and up to its quality standards in any location, he says, and has processes in place to keep its service at a high level.

“After 23 years, we’re still here, which says a lot about our consistency and staying power,” he says. “We still are one of the best in terms of quality, and we still have a great name with our vendors and customers. We expect to have consistent, long-term growth, because everyone who deals with Slack’s Hoagie Shack has a good taste in their mouth.”