Passion of the Blimpie

Blimpie to celebrate 50 years with 50 cent sub; chain’s founder sits down for interview with Rockland County Times

BY GIANNA VOLPE

The original Blimpie Base
The original Blimpie Base

The tri-state’s own submarine sandwich chain, Blimpie, turns 50 years old on Friday, April 4 when the first 200 customers of any Blimpie location can celebrate the half-century anniversary with a 50-cent Blimpie’s Best— and that’s cheaper than the 95 cents it once cost for the same sandwich during the chain’s 1964 inception, according to founder, Tony Conza.

“It was the most expensive sandwich at 95 cents and at the time we called it a ‘Super,’” Conza told The Rockland County Times of Blimpie’s very beginning, which saw he and two high school friends slap a sandwich shop together with $2,500 and the dream of bringing the cold subs of South Jersey to their hometown of Hoboken.

“The concept of a salad on a sandwich wasn’t really being done at the time,” Conza said. “It was just hero sandwiches—meatballs, ham and cheese on Italian bread—not shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes or onions.”

Founder Tony Conza
Founder Tony Conza

Blimpie forever altered that culinary landscape. From the moment the doors opened, Conza said folks were lining up to buy a ‘Blimp,’ a marketing descriptor he said was chosen to teach North Jersey folk the concept of the sandwich, inspired by Point Pleasant-based Mike’s Submarines, while associating it to the Blimpie brand.

“Back then the sandwiches weren’t known as ‘submarines’ and though we knew people in Philadelphia called them ‘hoagies,’ we wanted to teach everyone a word that was our own. We went through the As and Bs and got to blimp and said, ‘Okay, the sandwich kind of resembles an airship’ and then we just added an –ie to the end of it— that was our big market research,” he said with a laugh. “These days you spend a million dollars to come up with a name.”

Conza–author of “Success, It’s a Beautiful Thing: Lessons on Life and Business From the Founder of Blimpie International”– is no stranger when it comes to learning what it takes to build a successful business. What began as a lone sandwich shop on Seventh and Washington in Hoboken ultimately ascended to more than 2,000 locations by the new millennium, but in the beginning, Conza said there was darkness. “We were selling a lot of sandwiches but we really weren’t making money because we didn’t know what we were doing,” he said. “My partner [Peter DeCarlo] and I … went through some very difficult times. I remember one time we pulled up to the tollbooth at the Lincoln Tunnel and when I reached into my pocket, I didn’t have the 50 cents it cost at the time. I said to [DeCarlo], ‘Give me 50 cents to pay the toll,’ and he said, ‘I don’t have any money.’ Neither one of us did.”

After briefly considering getting out of the business in 1989, the year after the small public company had lost money and was selling for only 15 cents a share, Conza said he realized he had “lost the passion for Blimpie” and swiftly set a five-year/ 1,000 location goal for the company.

“Once I made that mental decision to get the passion back for Blimpie – everything changed,” Conza said of the start of an eight-year stretch of record company earnings. “In the beginning it was like being behind a Mack truck and trying to push it up a hill by myself, but eventually more and more people got on board—and the rest is history.” Sadly for local Blimpie fans, the few Blimpie locations in Rockland County have all been put to pasture in recent years. If you want to get your 50 cent Blimpie fix on Friday, you’ll have to hop over the border to Mahwah, Allendale or Westwood in nearby Jersey. For those working in New York City or Westchester, there are also several Blimpie locations to choose from, which you can find at www.blimpie.com/locator.