Former newspaperman Fowler enjoying submarine life at Which Wich
One giveaway that Robert Fowler loves what he does is the erratic red marks on his hands. Those smudges can be traced back to the same red Sharpies customers use on brown paper bags to cast their sandwich orders at his shop, Which Wich.
“It’s an occupational hazard,” he said sheepishly, looking down at his hands. “I don’t even notice it anymore. I used to get red Sharpie all over my pants.”
Those Sharpie marks are just the beginning. Fowler’s iPhone is decked in the colors of the store’s trademark sunflower yellow and black. The Vans on his feet, are — you guessed it — black canvas ringed at the sole with a yellow stripe.
“I had to order these specially online,” he laughed.
For most of his professional life so far, Fowler, 46, worked the 9-to-5 shift, a life dictated by the office routine. A newspaper advertising rep for nearly two decades, both at The Daily Sentinel and formerly for Cox Newspapers, Fowler always envisioned himself as an entrepreneur. He started a side business while a college student at Louisiana State University distributing shrimp to restaurants. Advertising was supposed to be a way to meet other business owners, possibly for a year or two.
“Twenty years later ...,” he said.
Fowler shirked the suit and tie in 2009 and has been the face of Grand Junction’s first Which Wich on the Western Slope ever since. Customers can often find him behind the counter, wiping down tables, talking to customers or emptying the garbage. His franchise’s sales volume places it in the top 10 percent of all Which Wich stores, he said.
Soon he plans to add two new Which Wich stores in the Grand Junction area, possibly one near Mesa Mall and the other in Clifton. He’s working with a business partner to open two more sandwich shops, characterized by minimalist decorations and plenty of stainless steel countertops, in the Salt Lake City area.
Despite his success, Fowler attracted his share of skepticism when he opened a sandwich shop in a recession. That was especially because Which Wich’s location on Patterson Road just west of 12th Street had seen the exodus of several sandwich shops. Others questioned why he would open a sandwich shop when Grand Junction appeared to already have a variety of them.
“I didn’t know enough to know whether it was or wasn’t stupid,” he said about launching the store in the grip of an economic downturn.
Yet every single time Fowler works at Which Wich he gets a similar reaction. Invariably, some new customer walks in, looks around, orders a sandwich, and proclaims they will return.
“They say, ‘This place is awesome. I’ll be back,’ ” Fowler said. “They haven’t even gotten their food yet. They say, ‘I can tell it’s going to be good.’ “
Starting the venture wouldn’t have been possible without his wife, Kari, who works for The Nickel. The couple have a blended family of three sons, two 17-year-olds and a 20-year-old.
But Fowler didn’t choose to open Which Wich by throwing a dart at a list of franchises. He spent the better part of two years seeking a store that would be a good fit both for him and for the Grand Junction market. The hunt often meant family vacations revolved around locations and dates where franchise trade shows were happening, he said.
He considered other franchise ventures, such as starting a maid service, but it didn’t line up with his passion. He likes sandwiches, and he loved the Which Wich philosophy. Corporate calls it “vibe” — a friendly place to grab a sandwich.
Employees banter as they make sandwiches, sometimes calling out customers’ orders in a sing-songy way. Employees usually appear happy and helpful. Fowler often posts an employee at the door of his business to greet hungry guests. That person also directs new customers how to place orders.
Customers also are encouraged to take an empty sandwich bag along when climbing any of the state’s 14,000-foot mountains. Climbers who bring back photos get a free sandwich as a reward.
Taking the plunge from receiving a steady paycheck to being your own boss has been a risky endeavor. Fowler said it’s hard to tell if he’s busier now or then.
“You have to be a little crazy to walk away from security and stability and a paycheck,” he said. “The rewards can be there but there’s certainly no guarantee.”