When Ryan Keller first contemplated going into business with Gary Grace, the Waverly native had never had a Jimmy John’s sandwich.
After all, he had grown around the furniture business his father had owned in town for years, and switching to the food industry required a different kind of palate.
To get a taste of what he might be getting himself into if he were to get into the new venture, Ryan drove to Cedar Falls to try his first JJ sandwich.
After a few bites, he was a convert.
With Gary’s partnership, he opened the JJ store in Waverly.
It was a good location, bookended by a movie rental business and a liquor store, within a stone’s throw from Wartburg College.
It did not take long for the partners to open two more stores — at 421 Viking Plaza in Cedar Falls and at 21 W. Jefferson St. in Waterloo.
But once the pandemic hit, the stores had to evolve, like the rest of the food industry, in order to sustain their operations.
In the first few weeks of the pandemic, the orders were down severely, but in the long run, it paid off that the franchise already had a delivery service as part of their culture.
In the meantime, while plugging through the hardships imposed on the business by the virus, Ryan focused on community-minded help, such as offering free sandwiches to students in the elementaries and controlling the costs, which meant asking his business partner, who was mostly retired, to come out of retirement until business starts to improve.
And it has.
“Since May, business has gone up 50%,” Ryan said.
With his hands moving as fast as his lips, Ryan continued making sandwiches, catering to a DECA competition at the school on Monday, while answering this editor’s questions.
One of the outcomes of the pandemic imperatives is that pickup business has also skyrocketed, perhaps at the expense of the sit-down options, perhaps as a new trend. Ryan estimated that now, there would be about 35 pickups online a day, compared to a handful prior to the pandemic.
As if choreographed to illustrate this point, just as Ryan was explaining the change of pace, Scott Leisinger, from Wartburg College, stopped by to pick up his order.
It had been placed on the top of the designated shelf barely five minutes earlier by Nic Moore, one of the employees.
Ryan added that he was hopeful to have a drive-thru option in Waverly, which has proved to be a good way to attract customers in the other two area locations.
With Family Video leaving the front space in the building last year, the current building may be reconfigured to include such a convenience.
Asked what he has learned as a businessman during the unusual times of the pandemic, Ryan did not miss a beat.
“People are more patient,” he said. “They will wait in line.”