“I loved the freedom and intensity,” Loving-Mills said about owning two restaurants. “There’s something about empowerment that I really liked.”
Although neither restaurant worked out after she was divorced, she found motivation to go back to school to study for a master’s degree to learn marketing and operations skills. She’s now an assistant manager for the University of Nevada, Reno’s Port of Subs sandwich shop that works in conjunction with a business class for which she used to be an intern.
“It’s like family,” she said of the staff. “I have a great rapport with the corporate staff and marketing team.”
Port of Subs took root in Sparks in 1972 and today has about 150 franchises in seven states, going bread to bread with many culinary competitors.
Although two brothers opened the original shop, current CEO John Larsen, an accountant turned entrepreneur, is considered the founder.
Between 1975 and 1985, Larsen opened 10 stores and eventually began franchising.
Port of Subs president Mike Powell said 115 of nearly 150 stores located mostly in Nevada or California are faring well for the times.
“Some markets are doing better than others,” Powell said. “Phoenix has certainly been a strong market. Reno is fairly strong because it’s a home market; it’s where we’re from. We have the most brand name recognition. Las Vegas has been hit pretty hard because the gaming industry has been hit pretty hard and people are not coming down from California to visit any more.”
Even the local sandwich shops have not been immune to the economy. The recent closure of the Silver Club on C Street also meant the Port of Subs shop inside the hotel casino had to close. Powell is hopeful that the new tenant might be willing to create a new financial package that would welcome the sandwich shop back into the building.
“It’s a very good location at certain times, especially with Hot August Nights,” Powell said. “We get huge, huge sales numbers during special events.”
All in all, most stores are surviving, despite some tightening of belts, he said.
“Hopefully, when this thing turns around, and it will — it will just be a matter of time and it may be deeper than last time — hopefully, we’re all the better for it because of painful lessons,” Powell said.
But what is working for Port of Subs is the part of its business model that helps university students gain some experience in managing a restaurant.
Jim Sundali, UNR associate professor of management, said the experience gives the students a blend of theoretical and traditional academic training and practical experience. It enables them to come up with new marketing ideas, such as a mobile van that serves sandwiches at special events.
“The primary perspective they come away with is that when they’re working on an idea to solve a problem, they have to have a hands-on practical solution,” Sundali said. “The students are working as hired consultants and they’ve got to have it deliverable: Here’s how it will solve your problem, this is how much it’s going to cost. It teaches them strategic management.”
Inside the classroom, Powell and other corporate executives visit the students, who serve as Port of Subs consultants, Sundali said.
“Mike Powell has given our class specific projects to work, like how to increase sales by 15 percent,” Sundali said. “Students are given several goals, like how to make Port of Subs the employer of choice and how to compete with Subway.”
Students read fast food industry reports and learn about how Port of Subs operates. It’s all part of an attempt to see if a relationship between Port of Subs and UNR’s business students could be successful.
The program that started last year attracted around 20 students, Sundali said. This year, 34 are enrolled in the course.
Of the six employees at the UNR Port of Subs, most are students, Loving-Mills said. She is responsible for reaching about 17,000 students and helps market the store with promotions such as “Fun Fridays,” the day of the week Port of Subs sponsors a campus club or organization and offers trivia games or free prizes to collect donations for the club’s favorite charity.
“We’re embracing our community and that’s really our focus,” she said. “You’re driving sales but also bonding with the community. I get to explore things more than maybe I would have at a franchise, which keeps me inspired.”
Loving-Mills feels she has found her place with Port of Subs on the college campus and it’s helped her to develop her own business motto — perhaps more than she would have in her own businesses.
“My greatest challenge and my greatest joy is people,” she said. “I love the people I work with. In any business, you want to have happy staff and have happy customers.”