SECOND LOOK: Blimpie owner calling it quits after two decades

Published on Thursday, 23 April 2020 10:17
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By Art Secondo

Closing your restaurant during a disastrous virus pandemic after weeks of losing regular business, perhaps will be common news in the coming weeks. However, the closing of only one of three Blimpie franchises in the state and how it affects the local owner after 20 years presents a far different perspective..

On Friday, April 30 a disappointed Mike Bell will lock the doors to his Blimpie sandwich shop on Meriden-Waterbury Road in Plantsville. Although Bell admits business has been slow recently but attributes the main problem of franchising, noting the cost and restrictions. “In a franchise business, the setup costs are usually higher than normal business venture which makes an eventual loss even greater,” Bell confides. “And, without consistent marketing,” business is an uphill fight,” he adds.

The once popular Blimpie chain now has dwindled to approximately 220 in the country and two remaining in Connecticut. “It wasn’t like this years ago,” said Bell who, besides working seven days a week, admits to suffering from an allergic reaction to bread of all things. He invested his life savings to purchasing a franchise with Blimpie after attending Briarwood College for a criminology degree and working at a Queen Street donut shop.

With the town now hosting 120 restaurant with numerous franchises, Bell recalls when he opened two decades ago, the town had many less citizens and less than 50 restaurants. “This was and still is a busy state highway, but losing loyal customers from the former Pratt & Whitney shop close bye really hurt our customer traffic as well as competition like Wendy’s, Dunkin Donuts, and of course Subway, plus the inclusion of others eating place on the street,” Bell commented.

It was a happier time 20 years ago. Bell and family friend Crystal Stratton along with his wife and two sisters, all worked devotedly each day and Blimpie attracted lines of hungry patrons. Over the years the owner made friends with patrons, many of them not even voicing their selection because Bell knew their preference.

“Being the lone Blimpie in town was an advantage, but the industry has changed and so have regulations,” adding he recently tried to place a advertising A-frame sign in front of his shop but was quickly visited by local zoning officer who told him it was not allowed. “Even the traditional exterior “Open” flags are restricted, explained the personal owner.

Despite the virus interruption with limited take-out orders and a inconsistent sales in the past, Bell believes the Blimpie franchise has excellent products and although franchise marketing is very limited, the company once was the leader in the food industry when Blimpie began in 1964 in New Jersey.

Franchises can be restrictive and Bell readily admits, but locally a franchisee has to accept limited marketing and fees that affect business. However, Bell has been a loyal community financial supporter with United Way, Italian Festival, Southington High athletics and local events.

Bell feels after 20 years the stigma of owning a franchise business, did not affect business. “People who have patronized my store have been extremely loyal and supportive. It’s typical that residents like supporting hometown places and with my staff we’ve provided that hometown feeling,” said Bell.

Now age 43, Bell admits that operating your own food business, franchise or not, is demanding with a 80-hour week schedule. His now depleted investment of his savings two decades ago with a franchise renewal due, Bell said he was prompted him to make the decision to close.

Bell seeks to pursue a career in criminal justice or police work. Looking out the front window of his spotless, 1,000-square foot restaurant, he displayed a recent letter from Blimpie corporate office thanking him for 20 years. “I guess that’s the official good-bye,” Bell whispers.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Southington Herald on Thursday, 23 April 2020 10:17. Updated: Thursday, 23 April 2020 10:31.