To a college student in the Willamette Valley, or even an office worker in downtown Portland, the Big Town Hero was a familiar sight.
The chain started in 1982 in Corvallis, Ore. and eventually grew to about 50 locations, many of them operated by franchisees. In recent years, Big Town Hero shrank its footprint to 13 stores before it was sold last year to Jack Chu, a Vancouver resident.
Chu and his team plan to revive the brand and its restaurants. One of the first steps took place Thursday with the opening of the first restaurant under the new ownership. Chu hopes that restaurant, at 1005 Broadway, taps into the energy of a growing downtown Vancouver vibe.
More stores are planned. Chu, with a commercial real estate background and an MBA from Golden Gate University, plans to open two additional Vancouver locations, perhaps by the end of this year. Those would be among 10 additional restaurants this year in Oregon and Washington.
Ultimately, Chu expects the chain to grow along the West Coast through a combination of franchising and company-owned stores.
The 2,389-square-foot downtown Vancouver restaurant is larger than existing and planned Big Town Heroes — typically 900 to 1,200 square feet. While the opening day for the Vancouver store was Thursday, the upcoming weeks will serve as an opportunity to work out any kinks in anticipation of an April 23 grand opening.
The restaurant touts its fresh ingredients for its sub sandwiches, particularly its daily baked-from-scratch bread. While that may sound similar to other chains — Subway, Jersey Mike’s, Firehouse Subs, anyone? — Big Town Hero is different, said David Vargas, marketing manager for the privately held Hero Systems Inc. One of the differences, he said, is that the sandwich preparation process is faster than those of competitors.
The Big Town Hero restaurants, other than the new one in Vancouver, are in Oregon: Beaverton, Central Point, Eugene, Gresham, Hillsboro, Lake Oswego, Lebanon, Springfield, Stayton, Tigard, Tualatin and two in Albany.
That’s about a third of the number the chain featured in 2002, when the Portland Business Journal wrote a story on founder Jim Jeter, his business partner and wife, Leslie Hwa, and the growth of the company. Jeter told the Business Journal that the chain, which had been focusing on a franchisee model starting in 1998, expected to grow to 200 stores by 2006.
Jeter sold his interest in the company in 2009, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Chu said he purchased Hero Systems Inc., and its remaining restaurants last year from Hwa. Chu declined to give the sales price for the privately held company, which has its headquarters on Hayden Island.
Besides the freshly baked bread, Chu said he wanted to retain other aspects of the previous Big Town Hero iteration. That includes attention to customer service as well as employee-delivered food to customers’ tables.
Less certain is whether future restaurants will see a robot delivering the food like the Vancouver location.
Chu, who grew up in the Portland area and is a Portland State University graduate, said he’d been impressed with the use of robots as a novelty at businesses he’d seen in Asia. He figured to try one out at Big Town Hero, overseeing a customization of the waist-high robot at the plant in the Wanzhou District of China.
“The kids will like it,” he said.