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MN man rose from fast-food worker to restaurant owner

Ron Harris, Minnesota director of Firehouse Subs (Firehouse Subs)

MINNEAPOLIS — Starting out with a $3.35 per-hour job at Taco Bell is long odds for success.

After all, the restaurant industry is known for high turnover, part-time starter jobs and it's the largest minimum-wage employer in the country.

However, Ron Harris, a Chicago native, took that job at Taco Bell after high school in 1985 and made something out of it.

"I tried college and that wasn't for me, but I love to work," said Harris, 50. "I started when I was 18 in Lombard, Ill. And I worked a lot of hours.

"Then I went to Brown's Chicken in suburban Chicago. And then Red Lobster, where I was promoted to general manager in charge of a $5 million-revenue store just outside of Chicago. I went to Macaroni Grill for 16 years and rose to be area director in Dallas. I moved (to the Twin Cities) with Macaroni Grill 13 years ago. And the company was bought by a private-equity firm and the economy fell apart. They let me go in 2008 with a bunch of other people."

Harris liked the Twin Cities. It was time to become an entrepreneur, an owner.

He investigated franchise opportunities and settled on Firehouse Subs, a Florida-based sandwich-and-salad shop started by a couple of working-class guys who once were firefighters. Harris liked them.

Harris became the first Twin Cities-area franchisee with a store in the suburb of Maplewood in 2011. And the company also hired him to be the area representative for the state. It costs up to $350,000 to become a franchisee, including an outfitted store, inventory, equipment and the rest.

"I own the state so if anyone is interested in opening a Firehouse, they come to me and if it works out, we sell them the rights. So, I own a restaurant and I also have the business of running the franchisees. There's still some work (building) the Twin Cities area. We're probably only 25 percent of the way."

Harris expects to soon announce the opening of an eighth Twin Cities restaurant. "What separates us from the average place is we use a high-quality meat, steam it and use a premium cheese," he said. "I was sold on the New York Steamer, which reminds me of a Chicago- or New York-style pastrami sandwich that a mom-and-pop would sell you with the corned beef piled high."

Harris is still working long weeks, albeit he lives a more comfortable life than he did when he was taking orders 30 years ago.

Harris took a risk to invest and open his own business and buy the Minnesota territory. So far it has been worth it.

"I had to put up money, it takes about $100,000 cash, to open a restaurant; absolutely there was risk," he said. "It's been six years and it has been a good ride. I'm still excited. The business is building in the Twin Cities area.

"There are seven restaurants in the Twin Cities metro area and one in St. Cloud. And we're looking at more franchisees."

Harris, who lives with his family in north Minneapolis, particularly enjoys the community relations part of his job.

He volunteers to speak several times a year at North St. Paul High School, near his Maplewood restaurant, and other schools about the importance of good attitude, a willingness to learn and work, and how it can be a steppingstone to bigger things in or out of the restaurant industry.

"You have to be high energy in this business," Harris said. "One of the things I like is to meet with young people who are just like me. I try to mentor them. I encourage them to go to college, but there are other opportunities. Heck, I have a cousin who's a neurosurgeon who must have been in school for 15 years. And he's a millionaire. But if you aren't in school after high school, you need a plan or you'll end up, well, where you end up.

"If kids have a job when they get out of high school, their chances are greater that they will become productive members of society. If they have a plan, they start there and work on that and move ahead."