Scott Jennings had two goals when he decided to open a restaurant after graduating from Arizona State University 15 years ago. First, he wanted a place that didn’t feel corporate and would make employees happy.

Second, he wanted something unique. “I’d worked in a lot of places in college, and everything was the same,” Jennings says. “I wanted to shake things up.”

His solution? A marijuana-theme sandwich shop called Cheba Hut. While sandwiches and stoners fit together like … well, sandwiches and stoners, building a franchise empire around the theme seemed like a long shot. But Jennings is killing it. He has opened 16 Cheba Huts in Colorado, Arizona, California, Oregon, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Iowa–mainly in college towns–and chalked up $10 million in sales last year from “toasted” subs named after varieties of pot. “People underestimate us,” he says. “But we are dead serious about what we know–serving up good food in a place with a great experience.”

We sat down with Jennings and sparked up a conversation.

You’ve been around for 15 years; there must be something beyond the gimmick.

We win our customers over one person at a time. I think that’s why we’re still in business–we’re not faking it. People come back for the food. Some drive hours and have us pack sandwiches in dry ice so they can take them home. We’re serious about our food, our sauces and our flavor profiles. That’s our differentiating factor. We’re more about the interaction than the cash transaction. We want to interact with customers and have some fun.

Do you ever regret the theme you chose?

That’s a hard question. It does differentiate us. I didn’t do it as a gimmick; it’s more of a parody of marijuana culture. But as far as growth, it’s a limiting factor. It makes it hard to find good franchisees. But it has helped us focus on why we’re here. We want our customers to have an experience. They can fill their bellies with rice at some other place, but I want them to feel better when they leave our store. Die-hard fans like to bring people in, so we always have to be on top of our game.

 

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