This Week In Illinois History: First Jimmy John's Opens (Jan. 13, 1983)

Jan 11, 2021

The first Jimmy John's shop, located by Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.
Credit Winston1085, via Wikimedia Commons

When we think of Illinois, we think of Abraham Lincoln, flat farmland and Chicago. But maybe someday our state will be associated with… sandwiches?

It was this week 37 years ago that the first Jimmy John's opened in Charleston, Illinois. Its founder, Jimmy John Liautaud, had just turned nineteen.

Liautaud was born in Arlington Heights, Illinois. He struggled through school, and after high school decided to get into the hot dog business. His father agreed to provide some seed money, with the caveat that if the business failed, Liautaud would enlist in the military.

Liautaud began researching Chicago’s hot dog stands, but soon realized the specialized equipment would be too expensive, so he switched to sandwiches. For location, he wanted to be near a university so he could sell cheap sandwiches to broke students. He could also stay open late to catch the drunk and hungry bar crowd.

Jimmy John's first menu
Credit Jimmyjohns.com

While visiting cousins at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, he found a nearby, two-car garage that had been renovated as a pizza place, a business that had failed. So he got the building for cheap, stocked it with used equipment, and began perfecting his bread recipe. His first menu listed the address as: "Behind the donut shop that’s Behind Ikes and alongside Krackers." The first menu also featured one of the company's famous slogans, “Come In For Free Smells.”

Jimmy John's opened on January 13, 1983. Liautaud drummed up business by working long hours, handing out free sandwiches, and delivering to dorms. He turned a profit the first year, eventually paid back his dad, and began opening new stores around Illinois, primarily in college towns. Today, Jimmy John's is headquartered in Champaign-Urbana and has almost 3,000 locations across 43 states.