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Submarina president taking company nationwide

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As the president and chief operating officer of Submarina: California Subs, Mimi Zeller is focusing on balancing her personal and work life -- while taking the franchise from 60 to 1,500 stores.

Speaking to students at California State University San Marcos on Wednesday, the executive said being a mother has made her a better manager of employees and working in industries ranging from steel to packaging to fast food has given her the insight to manage a company.

Zeller doesn’t believe in the glass ceiling. She told the women in the class to go after what they want.

“I’m not going to say that it’s easy because a lot of the companies I worked for were very male-dominated, but if you think you got it, go for it,” she said. “I think the sky is the limit -- I mean we might have a female president. Who knows?”

When doing marketing for Dominos Pizza Inc. (NYSE: DPZ) in Hanover, Mich., Zeller’s husband was transferred to Los Angeles. So, she made an appointment to interview with the executive vice president of her company, and asked for help relocating.

She got an interview to be a franchise consultant in Los Angeles, but in the interview, her boss-to-be told her one of the factors going against her was that she was a woman.

“I said, ‘You can’t say that to me,’” Zeller said.

She was hired.

The same boss told her to hide her pregnancy when she was pregnant with her first child. He was fired when she was on maternity leave.

Nineteen years later, Zeller said the workplace has changed.

“I don’t really look at gender anymore, I just look at people and doing their job,” she said.

The executive encouraged students to find a job that they are happy at, telling them that it may take a few jobs to find one where they were appreciated.

“Trust your gut and if you don’t feel like you’re in the right spot, move on,” Zeller said, noting at the same time that the best advice she ever got from a mentor was to persevere.

That persistence led to her success in the food industry. She was recruited to join Submarina about two years ago to help the company expand nationwide.

Now the sandwich company, which started about 30 years ago with one location in Poway and had slowly expanded to 60 stores, just joined an area developer network to build 1,500 stores in the next 10 years.

Zeller loves the company and the product. Her favorite sandwiches are the avocado, turkey and cheese, or ATC, on a white roll and the albacore tuna on squaw bread.

She said the store focuses on being healthy, not dieting.

In the fast-casual dining niche, Submarina hopes to come out on top. The store just went through a re-branding that emphasizes the California subs feeling -- a relaxed, happy feel that Zeller said encompasses what people think of when they think California. Soon, California map murals the length of the store will be part of stores across the country.

While the store lacks the money of its nationwide competitors such as Subway, Zeller said people will got to Submarina because of the quality. Produce at the store is cut daily; the bread is all baked fresh at local bakeries; and the store uses top brands of meat to ensure that there are no extra chemicals or preservatives.


Online Videos

* Mimi Zeller's class discussion

* Interview with Mimi Zeller

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