These Roommates Changed Their Lives for a Sandwich -- and Built a Franchise Empire

Ashley Morris and Jason Smylie have known each other since they were eight years old. Here's how they maintain a healthy work relationship today.

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This is a great American success story about two childhood friends who had a vision, then realized their goals by implementing old-fashioned hard work and persistence with amazing business strategies.

Capriotti's Sandwiches

Ashley Morris fell in love with a cheesesteak from Capriotti's Sandwich Shop while in college at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV). Morris worked his way up from bank teller to a top-performing broker at Wells Fargo, and by 23, he was one of the youngest portfolio managers with a successful and thriving book of business.

But, he couldn’t stop thinking about those amazing cheesesteaks.

Morris kept telling his buddy and college roommate, Jason Smylie, about the shop. Then, Smylie also fell in love with Capriotti’s. The roommates even broke the lease on their apartment just so they could move within walking distance. Morris realized that his passion was the sandwich shop, not the banking business.

Morris and Smylie watched Capriotti’s Sandwiches start to grow as a franchise model, and they couldn’t wait to jump in. They purchased their first franchise in 2005 and built out their very own store. Soon after, they bought an existing store and then built out their third new location. At that time the system had 36 locations mostly in Nevada and Delaware.

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After a few years as successful store operators, Morris and Smylie decided that they wanted to take Capriotti’s to the next level. They purchased the franchisor in 2008. At the time of the purchase, Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop had 40 stores in seven states. The system had very little infrastructure, a very basic operation manual and a need for some new systems and strategies.

Morris and Smylie invested internally for the first five years to build out their systems, technologies and especially the leadership team, to prepare the brand for growth. During this phase Morris, said they read all of the business books they could get their hands on. They especially found impactful strategies in Traction by Gino Wickman. He said they implemented these strategies at both the franchisor and franchisee levels and this helped them transform their company.

Morris, now 37, mentioned in an interview that he and Smylie are committed to bringing younger blood into the franchise business. They have been presenting to UNLV entrepreneur classes for the past five years, and they understand the importance of recruiting millennial franchise operators and employees to grow.

The company currently has 35 corporate employees and 200 store-level staff working in 10 corporate stores.

I asked Morris about Capriotti's secret to hiring. He said it focuses on building the best company culture and the strong culture attracts the best talent. They challenge team members to make sure they align with the company values. He said, “It is simple really, we communicate our culture and values with passion and choose the team members that are the best fit.”

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Morris and Smylie have been friends since they were eight years old, and now they work together to build Capriotti’s Sandwiches across the country. Morris is the CEO, focusing on the overall company strategy, and Smylie handles the day-to-day operations as the company president. Many people have warned them that mixing friendship with business is a recipe for disaster, but they have figured out how to have a strong working relationship and still maintain their friendship.

I asked Morris to share the secret to keeping their friendship and partnership alive. He said they follow a few rules to avoid problems. The first is to have very clear rules, roles and responsibilities. This reduces misunderstandings and keeps expectations in check. The next is a good lesson for all partners. He said you have to have a tiebreaker. The old 50/50 model creates stalemates that can stop forward progress. Lastly, they have an exit plan.

Capriotti’s Sandwiches now has over 100 units and more than 100 other units in development. Their goal is to have 500 profitable, open units by 2025.

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