23-year-old Aaron LaFond owns Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches in Johnson City. Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press
Aaron Lafond says customers at his restaurant often confuse him for a regular employee, but he doesn’t mind.
Now 23, Lafond co-owns and operates the Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches franchise on Market Street in Johnson City — with plans to open at least three more — but he got his entrepreneurial start four years ago in his Illinois hometown.
After graduating high school in Mahomet, Ill., Lafond enrolled in a nearby community college to pursue a degree in accounting, but he soon found that theoretical business pursuits were not for him and decided to learn through experience.
“At the same time that I went into college, I started my own business venture at the age of 19,” he said. “After three semesters of college, I had things running to the point that it didn’t make sense to go to college anymore.”
That first summer, Lafond set up a house-painting business through College Works Painting, a national company aimed at providing college students with managerial experience.
He employed 13 of his friends to take on 38 painting projects, making about $100,000 in revenue.
“I made a decent chunk, so that the next year, I was able to expand the business,” he said.
From the Mahomet/Champaign, Ill., homebase, Lafond’s enterprise added three branches in the Chicago area, a couple in Indiana and more in Iowa.
The following summer, the business grew again to 24 locations and made $315,000 in revenue.
Near the conclusion of the third summer, family friend John Melchi, an administrator at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, approached Lafond with a new business proposition.
Melchi wanted to partner with Lafond to run a Jimmy John’s franchise in Johnson City, 600 miles from home.
“I was kind of taken aback,” Lafond said. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn something, and my deal has always been if I wasn’t going to continue on with my education, I needed to find some great mentors to teach me.”
So he moved to Tennessee about a year and a half ago to manage the sandwich shop and hasn’t looked back.
Lafond said the Jimmy John’s model fits well with college students and medical professionals, something Johnson City has plenty of.
“We deliver until 3 a.m.,” he said. “I don’t think there are many places around that can get you food that late and get it to you fast.”
Business has grown steadily since Lafond took over managerial duties, and he said the partners are considering opening new locations, possibly in North Johnson City, Elizabethton and Bristol.
One of the keys to his continuing success is hard work, he said.
“When I was painting houses, it was all about knocking on doors,” Lafond said. “Now, I’m in here 10, 12 hours just about every day making things go smoothly and making sure we’re putting out the best sandwiches we can.”
Even though it runs counter to his own experience, Lafond said education is another important factor.
“I always encourage people to stay in school, it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Not everyone has the same opportunities that I did, have the same doors opened, so I absolutely think the hard work that I put in business, people need to put that same amount of work in their education so they can further opportunities for themselves.”