Fifty years ago, Tony Conza, living in Jersey City at the time, and two buddies from Hoboken High School got the idea to go into business.
Like many urban kids from North Jersey, they liked going to the Jersey Shore, where they tasted a kind of sandwich they had not tasted before.
“It had a unique taste, and the smell and taste of it stayed with us,” Conza said.
“A lot of people ate sandwiches made of ham and cheese,” he said during a recent visit back to his hometown. “But who ever heard of putting salad on a sandwich.”
The three boys talked about the sandwich on the drive back to Hudson County, and thought it would do well in their hometown.
“We thought we should open a business,” Conza recalled. “Only none of us had any money.”
But so firmly were they convinced that the sandwich would do well here that they were able to convince another friend to lend them some money. They found a location on Washington Street where they could open a store.
“From the minute we opened up, we had a line at the door.” – Tony Conza
“We needed a name for the sandwich” Conza recalled. “Down south, these kinds of sandwiches were known as subs (for submarine). In Philadelphia, people called them hoagies, but nobody in Hoboken or Jersey City at the time would know what a sub was. So we could pick out own name. We went through a dictionary and finally came up with the word blimp. We thought the sandwich looked a little like a blimp so we named it Blimpie.”
Within three months, the three boys had opened two more stores in Jersey City.
“There were three of us. So we figured each one of us could run a store,” he said. “We still didn’t have money and often couldn’t pay the meat guy or for the bread.”
They were often not paying one bill in order to pay another and keep supplies rolling into their stores. As they predicted, the sandwich became very popular locally.
“From the minute we opened up, we had a line at the door,” Conza said. “We didn’t even know what we were doing. But we loved it.”
Midlife business crisis
Of the three boys who started the business in 1964, Conza stayed with the business the longest. One of the partners left about a year later to become a food distributor, the second partner stayed for about 10 years.
By the late 1980s, Blimpie had about 200 stores nationally.
However, still considered a small public company, Blimpie was not doing well.
“We were losing money and our stock was selling for about 15 cents a share,” Conza said. He couldn’t figure out what had happened.
“We had started with no money and no experience and made money, and now we had 200 stores and we were losing money,” he said. “I realized that I had lost something, a passion for success.”
It was a moment when he thought about giving up.
“My first reaction was to get out of the business,” he said. “But I was too young to retire, and I didn’t have enough money to retire.”
But he decided if he was going to start over, he would have to develop a passion for something else.
“So I decided to regain my passion for Blimpie,” he said. “I knew it was a good concept. Once I made the decision, everything changed.”
During the next eight years, the company went from 200 stores to 2,000 internationally. Had anyone invested $5,000 in Blimpie in 2002, the person would have made more than a $1 million, he said.
“It was a radical change, and very exciting,” he said.
He sold the business in 2002. There’s still a Blimpie going strong on Washington Street.
Wall Street wasn’t for him – at first
Conza was raised in Jersey City, and attended St. Peter’s College.
“But I was there only one year,” he said. “My dad worked for the New York Stock Exchange as a clerk. I tell people I was raised on the Wall Street Journal. One day I asked my dad if I could work there, too, and he got me a job on the floor. But I’m an entrepreneur at heart, and I wasn’t happy working for someone else. I was an Italian kid from Jersey City and didn’t fit in on Wall Street at the time. I’m also an entrepreneur at heart, and so when we got the idea, I was happy going into business for myself.”
These days, he’s back on Wall Street doing consultant work and dealing commodities, precious metals, oil, and gas.
“I’ve always been interested in the financial markets,” he said. “A lot of what I do is investing.”
He laughed about what he imagined he’d be doing retired, sitting in Starbucks and living a laid-back life. But clearly that isn’t him.
All these years later, he still has a taste for Blimpie, saying his favorite is turkey, but being Italian, he also loves pepperoni.
During a visit to Jersey City earlier this year, Conza took a walk down memory lane, visiting St. Joseph’s Grammar School and the church where he served at altar boy and even Journal Square to look over historic Loew’s Theater.
“The city has changed, but it still has some of its own beauty,” he said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can a small business owner make it big today?
Tony Conza, founder of Blimpie, said it might be hard to do today what he did back in 1964 in starting a food franchise business.
“Government regulations were different,” he said. “There were no franchise laws. We sold our first franchise within a year. We just went to a lawyer who drew up the papers. Now there are all kind of regulations.”
But he said such things should not discourage an entrepreneur.
“You can always find a way to make it happen,” he said, but noted that such things will like cost more as a startup. “The money you need to spend does discourage people.”
David Hepperle, one time owner of Caesar’s Pizza in Guttenberg, is still passionate about owning his own place and would jump back in if he got the change.
He and his former partner, Felipe Alvarenga, a West New York resident at the time, took over an existing business on Boulevard East and pumped new life into it.
“We tripled sales right away,” he said. “We sold to local schools, sport teams, police and fire. And once word got out about it, we did well.”
Alvarenga had worked his way up from kitchen help to becoming a chef over a 15 year stretch in New York City and Fort Lee.
“He knew the business and that helped a lot,” Hepperle said.
Hepperle had business experience in textiles and owned Captain Embroidery Company in Fairfield. His father owned Marlene Lace Company in Guttenberg.
“Today it takes a lot more money to get a business off the ground,” he said. “Even when its successful, you have to set aside six months extra money just in case it doesn’t take off right away. So you’re not going to start a business with $5,000.”
For Hepperle, making money was only part of the thrill of owning a food establishment.
“I really was delighted in seeing clients happy,” he said. “When people tell you how good the food and service is and bring their relatives around, it instills some pride in you. I had a passion for it. We did deliveries. We had affordable lunches. We knew that service was everything, although we also knew we had to provide good food.”
Vincent Virga, owner of PFS Wealth Management Group in Bayonne, believes that it is still possible to do what Conza did.
“As you know I love climbing the proverbial business mountains and I personally feel that it is and it must be possible in this day and age to do this. It is in essence the entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. “In 2000, while in the middle of a successful investment banking career, I had a vision of opening up my own gourmet eatery.”
The firm he worked for at the time was about to go into a three-way merger.
“I wanted to take control of my own destiny and not leave it in the hands of eventual un-loyal employers,” he said. “I put pen to paper and wrote a New York Times best-selling business plan from a vision festering in my head for many years. [I] opened The Green Cow Brick Oven Pizza and Catering Company with my brother-in-law as the operating partner in 2004 in the Liberty Towers (in Jersey City). In 2005 I walked away from corporate America on my own terms.”
As president of the Bayonne Chamber of Commerce, he said he’s seen small businesses come and go.
“This is partly due to the fact that most new entrepreneurs are not aware of what it takes to run a business such as legal structure, accounting, how to apply for SBA loans, how to hire the right team, and more importantly how to deal when the eventual plateau hits them right in the face,” he said. They have the drive and the desire but quite often that’s where it stops. Successful business owners anticipate and recognize a plateau in advance and are always prepared for it, they adapt to a new economy and market.”
He said there are three aspects to a success business – creative, entrepreneurial, and operations.
“As a business owner, I have finally come to the realization that I cannot and should not be all three,” he said. “I have to surround myself with the top people in the other areas I am truly not a specialist in.” – By Al Sullivan