10 Things You Might Not Know About Blimpie
By Suzanne Raga
As America’s oldest submarine sandwich chain, Blimpie has served up deli subs for over 50 years. And though they started off with just signature subs—like their meat-packed Blimpie Best, which has been a best seller ever since it was added to the menu in 1984—Blimpie has franchised locations in shopping malls, convenience stores, sports arenas, and hospitals that offer everything from paninis to salads.
1. THREE 24-YEAR-OLD FRIENDS STARTED BLIMPIE IN 1964.
Tony Conza, Peter DeCarlo, and Angelo Bandassare met at their Jersey City high school, Saint Peter's Prep, and the three friends thought that Hoboken needed a submarine sandwich shop. After borrowing $2000 from a businessman friend, they opened the first Blimpie store in Hoboken, N.J. on May 16, 1964.
2. BLIMPIE GOT ITS UNUSUAL NAME THANKS TO THE DICTIONARY.
Conza and his friends didn’t want to name their shop after subs or hoagies, the generic terms for sandwiches. Instead, Conza looked through a dictionary starting with "A," and realized that the word "blimp" visually represented the shape and large size of his sandwiches.
3. THE FRIENDS WENT THEIR SEPARATE WAYS, RESULTING IN TWO DISTINCT BLIMPIE COMPANIES.
In 1965, Bandassare decided to leave Blimpie, but Conza and DeCarlo continued on without him, selling Blimpie franchises in the northeast and mid-Atlantic. In 1976, Conza wanted to expand into the South, but DeCarlo didn’t. The two friends decided to split their company in two, with Conza in charge of the original Blimpie company and DeCarlo in control of a new company, called Metropolitan Blimpie.
4. CONZA'S FAILED SOUTHWESTERN RESTAURANTS DAMAGED BLIMPIE'S BUSINESS.
In the early 1980s, Conza decided to diversify his company. In 1984, he opened Border Café, a restaurant serving Mexican food and drinks in Manhattan. In 1986, he opened two more Border Cafés in New York but lost a lot of money. Conza later admitted that Border Café was a huge mistake since he spent less time, energy, and money on Blimpie. During this time, Blimpie competitor Subway expanded across the country, leaving Blimpie on seriously shaky financial ground.
5. BLIMPIE BATTLED WITH SUBWAY TO BE THE TOP SUB CHAIN.
_BuBBy_ via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
In 1988, Conza closed the Border Café restaurants, focusing all his energies on Blimpie. He admitted that Subway did an effective job introducing Americans to submarine sandwiches, but he set a goal to get Blimpie sandwiches into the mouths of more people. To do this, Conza delegated day-to-day managing to his senior staff, visited franchisees to get a better sense of their problems, and implemented programs to boost employee morale and clean up filthy Blimpie shops in New York. Additionally, Blimpie introduced lower calorie menu offerings, including tuna, turkey, crab, and gourmet salads. Conza’s strategy worked, and Blimpie’s sales were up to $120 million in 1990.
6. THE "SIMPLY BLIMPIE" ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN WAS A FUN TONGUE TWISTER.
In 1993, Blimpie had 670 locations and was a publicly traded company on NASDAQ. Blimpie focused on marketing and advertising as a way to increase the percentage of new franchises that were successful. The "Simply Blimpie for fresh-sliced subs" tag line appeared on TV, radio, and print commercials, and the chain got plenty of screen-time and mentions on network and quiz shows as well.
7. DIMINISHING CIGARETTE SALES MEANT INCREASED BUSINESS FOR BLIMPIE.
Because less people were buying cigarettes, convenience stores needed an alternative way to make money. So, by the mid-1990s, Blimpie franchises began opening inside of convenience stores. Blimpie had low startup costs and didn’t require a fully equipped kitchen, which made it an attractive fast-food option for convenience stores. The chain also opened in other nontraditional venues like hospitals, college campuses, and sports stadiums, and customers could buy Blimpie sandwiches from vending machines. In 1995, Blimpie had more than 1000 locations.
8. IN THE LATE 1990S, BLIMPIE EXPANDED WITH HAWAIIAN TACOS, SMOOTHIES, AND PASTA.
In the late 1990s, Blimpie International, Inc. diversified and expanded with the addition of Maui Tacos, Smoothie Island, and Pasta Central. In 1997, Blimpie acquired a controlling stake in Maui Tacos, a fast-food chain in Hawaii that served a fusion of Mexican and Hawaiian food. Blimpie opened Maui Tacos locations in the continental U.S., and started Smoothie Island, a Maui Tacos offshoot, in 1998. The next year, Blimpie opened Pasta Central, a co-branded restaurant that allowed Blimpie to make money selling pasta and pizza for dinner.
9. IN THE PAST 15 YEARS, BLIMPIE HAS CLOSED STORES AND CHANGED OWNERSHIP.
In 2001, Blimpie was losing revenue and needed to make a change. A private investment group bought Blimpie for $25.7 million, and Conza stepped down from his CEO duties, becoming an advisor in 2002. Another shift occurred in 2006 when a franchising company called Kahala Corp. bought Blimpie. In the decade between 2001 and 2011, Blimpie struggled as it closed over a thousand stores, and its sales went down by more than 60 percent.
10. IN 2014, BLIMPIE CELEBRATED ITS 50-YEAR ANNIVERSARY WITH 50-CENT SUBS.
Despite the store closures, Blimpie celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014, offering 50-cent subs at all locations to the first few hundred customers. The Jersey City, New Jersey Blimpie store made a 50-foot sandwich, donating all proceeds to a local chapter of Boys & Girls Club of America. The mayor of Jersey City was also on hand to present Conza with a proclamation celebrating Blimpie’s 50 years in business.