Published Sunday, April 22, 2007 30 'SUB'STANTIAL YEARS
The Hoagie Heroes
By Kyle Kennedy The Ledger
Dean and Kay Shimer have a different kind of success story.
One where their sandwich shop business got off to a fast start and grew so rapidly that it seemed poised to become a homegrown phenomenon.
But the Shimers' story is about the things they wanted more than money, and how they spent three decades in business and landed back at square one, with almost no regrets.
"When we opened up the door, for several weeks people didn't know what a submarine was," said Dean Shimer, owner of Lakeland's Subs 'n Such, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last week. "It's hard when I think of '30 years.' It feels like it's been eight."
Shimer once had as many as seven Subs 'n Such locations in PolkCounty, while former partner John McKee also had a handful of area shops bearing the same name. But today, only the original stands at 1008 S. Florida Ave., in the Dixieland Historic District.
The compact, low-slung building is ringed by a shady patio adorned with flower boxes and small American flags. Inside, Art Deco style lights hang from the ceiling while diners sit at the wraparound counter and order from a narrow opening flanked by thick chrome pipes.
There are parts of the shop that seem like nostalgic throwbacks, but mostly, it just feels comfortable.
When Dean Shimer says he chose this setting after five years behind a desk as an Orlando accountant, it makes sense.
"I saw my life go by in a cubicle. Although it was great to have that knowledge from being in accounting, there were few mornings where I would wake up and not hate going to work," said the Pennsylvania native and Florida Southern College graduate. "This is a bigger cubicle, but it's more fun."
Shimer found a kindred spirit in McKee, his fraternity brother from FSC who was toiling away at a title company. He also had some restaurant experience to draw upon, having spent high school working at his dad's soda fountain in Allentown, Pa.
On April 16, 1977, Shimer and McKee opened Subs 'n Such on a sparse budget in a market practically void of competition. Subway, the international franchise giant, was hardly the national powerhouse it is today, having just expanded outside its home state of Connecticut into Massachusetts two years before.
"I grew up in an area where hoagie shops were very prevalent. This type of food was common," Shimer said. "The first day we opened up we had tons of steak cooked, we had hot dogs. We thought we were going to knock 'em dead. But at the end of the day I think we had $100, and we stayed open till 11.
"Two or three weeks later, though, it was like a flood. It was like we were giving away gold."
Shimer and McKee took that as a good sign and readied for an expansion, opening their second location that summer on Combee Road. A North Lakeland site followed within a few months, then a South Lakeland location in December 1978.
The summer before, an employee referred Lakeland native Kay Miller for a nighttime position. When Shimer and McKee parted ways in 1978 and split the chain's locations and employees, she continued working with the man who would ultimately become her husband of 26 years.
"I was in the plant business, I loved it. This wasn't anything I thought I would ever do," said Kay Shimer, who studied horticulture at FSC and worked at Peterson Nursery in Lakeland. "But every day here is a good day."
The Shimers forged ahead with more shops, adding four Lakeland sites and a Bartow location during the 1980s. But during that time, they also had two children, son Dean in 1982 and daughter Caitlin in 1985.
The Shimers found themselves trying to balance the demands of parenthood with those of being entrepreneurs.
"It's a tough thing to run seven shops. I didn't have them, they had me," Dean said. "It comes to a point where it's, 'Do you want to work 70 to 80 hours, or do you want to have a life?' We chose the latter, and I have no regrets."
Well, maybe one.
"The only regret I have is I never franchised, because we are marketable," Shimer said.
The couple pulled the plug on an Edgewood Drive location about 1992. Three more were gone by 1998 and the rest weren't far behind. But while business dwindled, the Shimers were attending their son's soccer games and daughter's cello recitals.
Caitlin, a senior at the University of Richmond, will enter law school this fall at GeorgeWashingtonUniversity. About the same time, Dean will graduate from the University of North Florida with a degree in finance and real estate.
"I have two wonderful children because we put the time in," Shimer said. "I would love for my son to get in the business and we could expand again, but I wouldn't force him."
Dean said he has a lot to be thankful for. Some of his current customers have been frequenting Subs 'n Such since the first week.
"This place is jammed up at noon," said Paul Body, a Plant City resident and Subs 'n Such customer of nearly 20 years. "They do sincerely have the best subs in town. They overload them. It's amazing what they do."
One afternoon a few days after the anniversary, Dean and Kay are engaged in their usual routine: swapping places behind the register, straightening up in the dining area, interviewing an applicant, talking with customers like old friends. Open six days a week, the restaurant recently added breakfast, starting at 7:30 a.m. during the week and 8:30 on Saturday.
"We go on vacation a lot and we travel but we never hate to come back to work," Kay says.
Dean emerges from the back and returns to the counter, glancing out the windows at the traffic on South Florida Avenue.
"I don't need the accolades. I've done something I loved and I've had a great life. I got to call my own shots," he said. "Does it sound like I like the business? I do. I hope to do it forever."
SUBS 'N SUCH * BEST SUBS IN LAKELAND, FL SINCE 1977