Sheboygan Falls, WI,
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Cousins Subs & Johnsonville Owners Converse All Things Wisconsin

Bill Specht & Ralph Stayer reminisce growing up in their family businesses, coming together as two Wisconsin brands to create specialty subs for Cousins' customers

These two Wisconsin-based entrepreneuers came together for the first this fall, prior to Cousins Subs' launch of two limited-time-offer sub sandwiches, the Wisconsin Steak & Brat and the Wisconsin Bacon & Brat. Portions of their conversation are captured in a video here. But their conversation was so rich of history, family and colorful stories, that we wanted to share their entire conversation below in this blog.


Q1: What inspired each of you to start or develop your businesses?

Bill Specht: The idea of Cousins Subs first came to fruition after I moved from the East Coast to join my wife, Sandy, in Milwaukee during the late 1960s, and we couldn’t find a sub shop in town that lived up to those back East. After working a few years in the lithography trade, I was still craving East Coast subs. When the company I worked for at the time closed, I approached my cousin Jim Sheppard about opening a sub shop and the rest is history. Once we decided to open a sub shop, deciding on what to name it was the next challenge. Jim, my wife Sandy and I were sitting around the dinner table one night, thinking about what to call the shop, when Sandy said, “How about Cousins?” It was perfect and showed our focus on family, and it was easy to remember.

Jim and I opened the first Cousins Subs at the corner of 60th Street and Silver Spring Drive in Milwaukee, Wis. on June 19, 1972. We soon opened our second location on Farwell Avenue and Brady Street, which attracted a lot of business from guests partaking in activities at the lake. The success of this location propelled us to keep growing.

Ralph Stayer: I didn’t start our business. I give the credit to my parents. They were dirt poor. My mother said we were going to get out of this and have a business. They saved their money and opened a butcher shop. I worked there throughout high school and college gaining business skills, but I did quite well in physics during my senior in college. There was a professor who said he arranged for me to get a physics fellowship in Michigan. But I said no, ‘I’m going to make sausage with my dad.’ And that’s really my story. I wanted to work with my dad and have done ever since.


Q2: Why did you choose to work in the food industry?

Bill: As I noted previously, when I got out of the service, I went into the print industry and thought that was what my trade was going to be. But after moving to Milwaukee and discovering that there was not a sub shop in town that lived up to those back East, I started to research the restaurant industry which ultimately led me to found Cousins Subs.

Ralph: I really didn’t make the decision to go into the food industry, my parents did. They first put a down payment down on a floral shop in Milwaukee. I thank the Lord that didn’t work or I might have become a physicist! That decision was made for me. I think God was looking out for them because that floral shop fell through.


Q3: What’s your favorite memory getting your business started?

Bill: The first Cousins on 60th and Silver Spring started because Jim and I went to purchase equipment (slicers, etc.) from a friend who had a restaurant and he noted that he’d like to sell the space. Given that the space was equipped with everything we needed (grill, freezer, etc.) and was being sold at a respectable price, we could not pass it up. After we purchased the space and started Cousins, a lot of our initial customers were former East Coasters. They loved the fresh baked bread, just like back home. Many of these guests became friends who helped spread the word about the quality of our subs. That’s what I really enjoyed, working with our customers like that.

Ralph: My parents started as retailers, in butcher shop business with another couple in 1945. My father bought the shop after Mr. Hersch died. They were retailers and in the unincorporated village of Johnsonville, where the population was 65, so there was no way they could make a living there. So they opened a shop in neighboring Plymouth, which was very successful and helped put my sister and I through college. And then they opened another store in Sheboygan Falls. They did well but I wanted to grow the business beyond retail once I got out of college.

Then this opportunity came up. Some people from Illinois came up and wanted to start a fast-food franchise. They were going to feature bratwurst and call it a “yodel.” We invested $50,000 to start this. I was pushing to invest in this. Back then, that was a lot of money. It turned out to be a big loss…but it was a great lesson. That situation convinced me that the retail business wasn’t the way to go. Instead, manufacturing and developing a wholesale business was the direction I felt would be best. That was such a big loss but a big “a-ha,” that it really caused me to focus on the other part of the business. That $50,000 was the best money I really spent.


Q4: How did your company’s Wisconsin roots play a role in growing your business? What’s it like to build a company in Wisconsin?

Ralph: The first thing I’d say is that the people in Wisconsin are industrious. They are great to work with. We’ve had a wonderful situation building and growing in this state. The workers here want to learn, grow, be successful and contribute. This is a great place to run a business because the people are so great.

Bill: I agree with you. After two or three locations it’s no longer ‘just Cousins.’ We’ve got some great workers and people here. If you don’t start surrounding yourself with good people you aren’t going to succeed.


Q5: How have your brands contributed to Wisconsin?

Bill: We’ve been here more than 40 years and have deep roots as a Wisconsin-based company. Since the early days, we’ve been a Summerfest vendor and our Make It Better Foundation offers grants, product donations and scholarships to high school students each year. In addition, we’ve partnered with many prominent Wisconsin-based businesses and organizations such as Johnsonville, Sprecher, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, UW Athletics and the Milwaukee Bucks. Overall, I think we’ve given something to Wisconsin by being a successful brand here.

Ralph: There’s a cache here that has helped us….the four basic food groups: beer. brats, cheese and the Packers. But being from Wisconsin gives us a certain aura. There are only 65 people in our rural town of Johnsonville. That lends a certain amount of credibility to the quality of our products. People really care so are our products are better.


Q6: Both companies have a history of giving back. In what ways are you invested in the communities you do business in?

Bill: I’ve always felt that giving back is the right thing to do. We need to support the communities we call home. Many people support us by purchasing our subs, and it’s important to share our success with our communities. That’s why we have our Make It Better Foundation, as I mentioned earlier, which provides grants to local organizations that focus on health/wellness, youth education and hunger.

Ralph: I look back and realize that God had a plan for Johnsonville and me. He’s blessed us in so many ways. At Johnsonville we’re just stewards. It’s our joy to use our success to help others and maybe make the world a little better. We’re very active in the communities we exist in. We have development plans for all of our members. Our “Careville” program allows our members to be active in charities that they support, and request from Johnsonville either brats to be donated for that charity to use in a fundraising effort, or, cash. The number of brats or dollars depends on the number of hours that member serves his or her charity. We also provide scholarships for the children of our members based on their academic and civic involvement. We share what we make in all the communities where our plants are. Our members all live here too, so why wouldn’t we all want to make the places we live and work a better place to be? It’s a no-brainer.


Q7: What have been the benefits of being family owned and operated in your respective businesses?

Bill: My joy is seeing my two children here now, who started in the business early in their teens. My daughter Christine liked management. She graduated and worked her way up, after starting in HR, and now she’s heading up the company as CEO. My son, Bill, enjoys the operations side of the business. So he and his business partner are working on their fourth Cousins franchise. It’s been a joy watching my family be so involved in this company.

Ralph: Being a privately held company is wonderful. I’m on a board of a public company. And I scratch my head watching how they do things. At Johnsonville, we get to make decisions for the long term. We invested in Japan – and lost money – for 15 years before we became profitable. I say it took us 16 years to become an overnight success! Public companies aren’t able to do that. We’re able to share our profits with our people, and share our information and success with them, because we can. Our values are about using the business to build our people, not the other way around. We’re here to help our people build their God-given talents, so they can become great and help others do the same. Being publicly held is not our DNA and never will be.


Q8: Tell us what it’s been like coming together to make these two special sandwiches for Cousins Subs for a third consecutive year.

Bill: It’s been a joy, Ralph, to be in this partnership with you. We’ve got two brands going back many years, coming together to make a great product people want to try. I certainly welcome it and I hope we have a few left to make in the future!

Ralph: I’ll tell you what. Last year, both that Brat & Bacon and Steak & Brat were available in your Plymouth store, which is near our headquarters in Sheboygan Falls. When I’d go there, I’d see a dozen or so Johnsonville members eating those because they’re so darn good. I’m thrilled we can work together as two Wisconsin companies to make something special for our mutual customers. And besides, I love the sandwiches. They are good!


Q9: What word comes to mind when you think of each other’s business?

Bill: I’d say, quality. My wife introduced me to Johnsonville in the stores. I love your Italian Sausage. It’s great tasting. We’ve had many of your sausages on our grill and we love making the Italian Sausage with marinara on a little Italian bun. It makes such a great sandwich.

Ralph: The word that comes to my mind when I think of Cousins, is the bread. It is fabulous. I know you bake your bread in the stores every day. There are two parts to any sandwich: the bread and what’s inside. If you don’t get both right, it’s not a good sandwich.


Q10: What’s your favorite part about being a Wisconsite?

Ralph: It’s so beautiful here in the summer. And I love the values here. I think this is true also of the Midwest in general. In the winter, my wife and I move to Florida, and our friends there are almost all from the Midwest. We like to be relaxed, laid back, unassuming. It’s always been that way up here in Wisconsin too. We like that.

Bill: My wife is from Milwaukee. I just found that the city and people here are so friendly. The state is large and has so much to offer. Before I found golf, I really enjoyed the hunting and fishing here. It’s a great state that offers a lot.


Q11: What’s your favorite Wisconsin food product – besides your own products?

Bill: My favorite product here in Wisconsin is the cheese and there are a lot of great cheesemakers in this state. Pinning a favorite down to one product is hard to do because I have many favorites. My favorite restaurant here is Schreiner’s in Fond du Lac. I am such a fan and can’t make a stop up north without stopping there.

Ralph: It’s hard to get good cheese when you go out of this state! The cheddar here is the real cheddar. Also, the kringle – Danny’s Kringle or the Racine Kringle – now, that’s something you can’t get anywhere else! We live in Fond du Lac, and go there {to Schreiners} too. Another restaurant I want to give credit to is any Bartalottas restaurant.


Q12: You both recently announced your retirement as CEO. What do enjoy most about retirement?

Ralph: I love not having the pressure. I’ve worked for Johnsonville for 57 years. I was leading the place after one year in college, and since then it’s been a large responsibility. It’s more than just about me. There are so many people relying on you. Their families are also counting on you. So, to have passed duty on to someone who is good at leading people, makes me feel like I’ve completed my job and done what I’m supposed to do. That makes me feel good that someone else can carry the business from here. {Note: Ralph named Nick Meriggioli as CEO in April, 2015, and Ralph serves as chairman}.

Bill: I announced my retirement at our annual conference this past March. But I still come in every day. My daughter, Christine, was appointed CEO and president. I still feel active as chairman of the board, so I don’t see too much difference lately since I’ve retired. Maybe I’m doing too much meddling, but at our age, we have to keep our senses sharp! But in general it’s been great.