Metro Atlanta restaurant giant snags another chain for its empire

Chick-fil-A and Waffle House have deep roots in metro Atlanta, but another Georgia-based restaurant behemoth is branching out with the announcement of its most recent acquisition, just one in a string of anticipated deals.

Sandy Springs-based Inspire Brands announced it is buying Jimmy John’s Sandwiches, a national chain with more than 2,800 company and franchise restaurants.

Inspire already owns Arby’s and completed purchases of Buffalo Wild Wings and Sonic last year. It spent more than $5 billion on those two acquisitions. It hasn’t disclosed the price on Jimmy John’s.

The latest move, according to Inspire, would make it the fourth-largest restaurant company in the nation, one notch above where it is now. That would give it more than 11,200 restaurants with more than $14 billion in annual sales, making it bigger than both Waffle House and Chick-fil-A, according to estimates from industry consultant Technomic.

Inspire said Wednesday it isn’t done buying restaurant brands.

Chief Executive Officer Paul Brown told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year that he expects metro Atlanta to benefit as the company acquires more multi-billion-dollar chains across a range of categories. Inspire plans to handle some shared resources out of its new headquarters near Georgia 400.

“It continues to solidify Atlanta as the restaurant capital of the country,” he said at the time.

Georgia already has a hefty buffet of locally based chains, from Chick-fil-A and Waffle House to Zaxby's, Church's Chicken, Moe's Southwest Grill, Huddle House, Hooters, Krystal and others.

It is too early to say whether any operations of Champaign, Ill.-based Jimmy John’s will shift to Georgia, an Inspire spokesman told the AJC. Founder Jimmy John Liautaud is stepping down as the sandwich chain’s chairman, but the company’s current CEO will remain in place even after the deal’s expected completion later this year.

Inspire has 700 employees at its headquarters, up from about 375 at Arby’s in early 2018 when the chain became the local foundation for the broader company.

“We will be adding positions as we grow our capabilities and shared services resources,” spokesman Chris Fuller said Wednesday. “Even before this acquisition, we have dozens of open positions at our new, tech-forward support center, which we moved into this summer. The excitement, growth and opportunity in the city has been instrumental in enabling us to attract top talent.”

Last year, the company and the state announced Inspire’s plans to exceed 1,100 local headquarters jobs over the next six years.

Inspire has familial connection to Jimmy John’s. Roark Capital Group, the majority owner of Inspire, also owns more than half of the sandwich chain.

Inspire describes itself as a company of “mavericks.” Unlike some other big companies that own multiple restaurant brands, Inspire has said it isn’t sticking to a single category, such as fast food.

That fits with broader changes underway in the restaurant business, said Charles Winship, who manages consumer insights for Technomic. “Segment lines are blurring, and operators are looking to see what they can learn from other segments to drive sales. I think Inspire Brands embodies that trend.”

Meanwhile, the industry overall is wrestling with intense competition and rising costs, particularly those tied to labor. Concerns also have grown over consumer demand for home delivery, often through third party companies, which can challenge profits, quality control and brand loyalty.