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Success Through Sandwiches

Former UNLV roommates liked the Capriotti's restaurant chain so much they bought the company and doubled its size.
Business and Community  |  Jul 2, 2012  |  By Brian Sodoma
Ashley Morris and Jason Smylie, owners of Capriotti's Sandwich Shop. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

Last summer, some 200 people showed up at the Little White Wedding Chapel for "Holy Caprimony Day." These devotees sweltered in 100-degree heat for a mock ceremony to The Bobbie, a Capistrami or another of their favorite Capriotti's sandwich. That level of devotion is exactly what sold Ashley Morris and Jason Smylie on the company.

"I believe Capriotti's is one of those special brands that has an allure. The food is phenomenal. The food translates into people being passionate about the entire organization," said Morris. "People don't think of us as fast food -- even though we play in the same circle -- because we're better."

Marketing efforts like "Holy Caprimony Day" are one of only a few changes that came to Capriotti's Sandwich shops since 2008, when the two UNLV graduates assembled an investment group to buy the corporation. They already owned a couple Las Vegas franchise stores.

"When we bought the company there was no marketing at all. It was pretty much just word-of-mouth," Smylie added.

In fact, the chain's good reputation has extended all the way to the White House. On June 7, President Barack Obama gave a shout-out to the restaurant during a speech about student loans on the UNLV campus.

But both Smylie and Morris know that the basics of business rely first on a solid product. The Capriotti's brand had some great recipes, for sure, so changing the food was never a consideration for Smylie, who works as chief marketing officer today and Morris, who is CEO.

The pair added about 25 corporate-level jobs and have nearly doubled the company in store count. Today, there are 79 Capriotti's stores in 12 states. Their goal is 500 shops within five to seven years. Revenues have climbed from about $27 million in 2007 to more than $44 million today.

As children, Morris and Smylie grew up in the same Los Angeles neighborhood. They knew of each other through mutual friends at the time. By happenstance, both moved to Las Vegas in 1990, and their families ended up living on the same street in the Desert Shores area. They eventually became college roommates at UNLV, where Smylie introduced Morris to The Bobbie, a turkey, cranberry, and stuffing sandwich. Even today, both still eat the sandwiches at least twice a week.

"It doesn't happen with a lot of brands where you have this loyalty," Morris added. "I know people who own Taco Bells and never eat there."

After graduating, Morris, '02 BSBA Finance, worked for Wells Fargo in its private client services division, where he analyzed company structures from top to bottom. But he notes that his "capstone" class did the most to prepare him for owning a business. In it, he learned how to really analyze a company's strengths, weaknesses and threats and put a growth plan together for the future.

"The UNLV experience gave me the confidence at the end of the day, when looking at buying Capriotti's, that I have the skill set where I can take it to the next level and build a great company," he added.

Smylie graduated in 2003 with a computer science degree and minor in math, then went back to UNLV for his MBA, graduating in 2006. He also leveraged his experience as a software engineer with Bechtel of Nevada into improving in-store technology, such as cash registers and ordering systems, and social media marketing efforts for Capriotti's.

"Everything I learned has been valuable in some way, shape, or form. Even with the math minor -- I didn't think I'd use a lot of it, but it has helped me to analyze financial data and spot sales trends," he added.