Fresh start coming for Watertown's Jreck Subs

Jan. 14—WATERTOWN — The new owner of Jreck Subs remembers going after school to buy a sub three or four times a week at a Jreck sandwich shop in his hometown of Kent, Ohio.

So when a friend called a couple years ago asking whether he'd ever heard of Jreck Subs — and if he'd be interested in acquiring the sandwich chain — Matthew G. Darrah wanted to know more.

"I just said 'Wow,'" Mr. Darrah recalled. "I went there with my high school buddies. It was the only franchise outside of the north country."

In 2019, he acquired Jreck Subs when his company, Fresh Start Franchising Inc., became the winning bidder at an auction for Jreck's franchise rights, trademarks and other brand-related property.

Mr. Darrah, of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., is president and chief executive officer and a major shareholder in Fresh Start Franchising.

The company's corporate headquarters are located in offices in the former Agricultural Insurance Co. building at 215 Washington St. in Watertown, where he and his management team are planning the company's future.

During the first year of its acquisition, Fresh Start Franchising looked at the chain's operations to see how franchises could become more efficient.

The team is now embarking on "refreshing the brand" for the company that's had a loyal customer base since it was started in the Watertown area 55 years ago.

"It's something we're going to do methodically," Mr. Darrah said. "We'll be doing a gradual introduction."

A social media campaign began a couple weeks ago with a Facebook post featuring a photo of two disposable coffee cups and the words "IT STARTS WITH THE CUPS."

A follow-up Facebook post teased: "If you like what you've seen of our new look so far, wait until you see our new website, new locations, new — whoops! We're getting ahead of ourselves."

Mr. Darrah promises that the social media campaign is just the beginning.

A corporate prototype store will be introduced next year featuring a new look. The location of the remodeled store and other details will be unveiled then, he said.

"We're close to the deal," he said.

Some franchises will move forward with the new look, others will not, he said. The company is working with Chase Design, Skaneateles, on the design.

But he stressed the food that Jreck has offered all of these years will not change.

With a new look and rebranding, the company will focus on expanding outside of Northern and Central New York. There are now 27 Jreck franchises in the north country and a few outside Syracuse with a total workforce of more than 250 employees.

As for the company's familiar logo that's been displayed on exterior signs for years, the "Admiral J" character won't be retired. The admiral, with his handlebar mustache and white gloves, will continue to play some kind of a role in the company.

Fresh Start Marketing Director Ed Prue, working with two Syracuse-area advertising firms, along with Mr. Darrah, are still working on the rebranding.

Perhaps the company's recent Facebook post hinted at a change. It showed a school bus that could help tell Jreck's story of how it began with five Carthage High School teachers in 1967.

Carthage teachers Ellis Martin, Keith Waltz, Jerry Haley, Charles Lehman and Robert Martin set up shop to sell subs in a converted school outside Fort Drum, then known as Camp Drum, to make some extra money for their families.

Business went so well that they formed a corporation in 1968 called Jreck Subs Inc., derived from the first letters of the five teachers' names.

Mr. Darrah said he wants to incorporate the company's history and its association with education, Fort Drum, the five teachers and their interest in philanthropy into the company's rebranding.

"It's such a rich history for Watertown," he said.

While he's looking at the company's future, its recent history was hit by scandal before he took over Jreck Subs almost three years ago.

The U.S. Marshals Service operated the sandwich chain after the previous principal of Jreck, Christopher M. Swartz, was sentenced in U.S. District Court, Utica, in July 2017 to 12 1/2 years in prison for federal wire fraud and tax evasion convictions. As part of a plea agreement in the criminal case, Mr. Swartz agreed to forfeit his interests in Jreck.

Jreck franchisees were wrapped up in the legal problems before the courts sorted out the mess and allowed them to continue operating.

"They really worked hard and are working hard," Mr. Darrah said. "And they survived."

Sally Rice, who has worked for Jreck Subs for 40 years and since 1984 has co-owned five franchises, said she generally likes the ideas that Fresh Start has proposed for the sandwich shops, especially those that tie in the company's history.

She also thinks that customers will like the rebranding once they get to see all the plans. Some customers said they would miss Admiral J if he's put out to pasture.

But Mrs. Rice said that the admiral was part of a rebranding that was done many years ago and the corporation never followed through incorporating it in its advertising.

Mr. Darrah, who retired eight years ago as executive vice president of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car's North America holdings, is optimistic for Jreck's future.

"Doing this, it's become a labor of love," he said.