Meet Me at the Samba Room – A Tribute to Fred DeLuca
Back in 2000, I worked for Capital One as a Project Manager and Analyst. I had just graduated from Miami University (Ohio) the summer before and was still adjusting to a working lifestyle. Springtime was coming and I of course needed to take a spring break! I had planned to meet up with my friends from school down in Fort Lauderdale before going to the Bahamas. As soon as I arrived at the DC airport, I found out that my flight had mechanical problems and would be severely delayed.
The year 2000, while only 15 years ago, was a LONG time ago. Most people still didn’t have cell phones or smart phones, so it wasn’t like I could send a group text or check-in and catch up with people easily later. If you weren’t at a specific spot at an exact time, you just didn’t meet up! 2000 was also before 9/11 so you could actually negotiate with the airlines, and I was able to somehow switch airlines without paying a fee. This guy was at the gate right next to me and said to the gate agent, “Oh I’m with him.” I agreed and helped him get onto the MetroJet flight where we sat next to each other.
He opened up a business plan and I asked if he was presenting or reviewing. The man said, “A friend of mine wants me to open up a golf course with him… I don’t know. What do you do?” I told him I was with Capital One, but had a business plan of my own. I had won a business plan competition back at Miami University for an idea to help college students find jobs online. He said, “What’s wrong with you kids? My son just left Capital One to start a software company too. You guys are crazy to give up the opportunity there.” I told him that my passion was building something that didn’t exist and Capital One was already well established. I couldn’t make a real impact.
“Do you have a business plan?” he asked. I said, “Of course…”
At the end of the flight the man beamed over his information via Palm Pilot (yeah that existed), and the contact came through as Fred DeLuca with Subway. It had his home address, cell, everything. I asked what he did with Subway and he said he was the owner. I told him “Oh, one of my family friends owns a Subway too, that’s cool.” Fred smiled and said, “I founded Subway. You should stop by my house while you’re here this week and let’s go through your business, I might be interested in investing.”
I got off the plane and immediately called my co-founder, Dan Bartfield, who was working at Dewalt/Black & Decker at the time. I asked Dan to go online and lookup Fred DeLuca (note: Google didn’t exist yet). Dan said, “Wow! Entrepreneur Hall of Fame, Forbes List, Subway” and before he could finish I said, “Book a flight to Florida, we’re meeting with him at his house.”
Dan and I showed up at his house a little while later and the person who answered the door said he was out on his boat and to meet him out back. We walked out to see a beautiful 110’ yacht, Subconscious II. When we boarded, I saw Fred laying back on the couch watching Something About Mary on a flat screen TV. It was the first mega yacht I had ever been on and the first flat screen TV I had ever seen. He welcomed us as if we had known him for years and said how he was looking forward to learning more, as a marble table slowly rose from the floor.
For the next hour or so we discussed our opportunity, our sales model, addressable market, and what money we really needed to get the business of the ground. At the end of the meeting I could tell Fred was impressed and really interested. He said a few words I’ll never forget, “Meet me at the Samba Room.”
The Samba Room was a really cool Cuban inspired lounge on Las Olas in downtown Fort Lauderdale. I remember sitting outside on the modern white couches there with Fred, his son Jon, Dan, and a couple of their potential co-investors thinking, “So this is what it’s like!” Shortly after Dan and I quit our jobs and Fred funded eCampusRecruiter.
Dan and I spent the summer of 2000 in Florida. We would stay at my grandmother’s condo not far away or head up to Dan’s parents house 90 miles north for the weekends. We worked out of Jon’s company office in Fort Lauderdale during the week and used to meet up with Fred a couple times a month.
Later that year Dan and I moved up to Chicago but would still hear from Fred and Jon frequently. One time Fred called me and said he was having a party at his house on Friday and looked forward to seeing Dan and I there. As usual, I said “Of course!” even though Dan and I were in Chicago. Since we couldn’t afford (or were too cheap to buy) the flights we immediately got in the car and drove through the night to get there. I remember those parties vividly as there would be tons of people there. Everyone looked famous and very well off and Dan and I would just hang out along the sidelines with Jon and joke around. Fred would think we were having more fun and would join us frequently. Those were really good times as he would dive in into sales metrics while simultaneously asking us really deep questions about life.
I really loved hanging out with Fred. He never said it, but I really felt like he saw a piece of himself in us and treated us so well.
There are a few memories I would like to share:
Fireworks on the Yacht: In 2001, I was in New York visiting my girlfriend (now wife Danielle) during the Fourth of July and Jon had said he was going to be there. We were invited onto the smaller party boat, Subconscious I, to watch the fireworks in the harbor with the family. The small boat was about 70’ and the family was Fred, his wife, all of their nieces, nephews and cousins. Fred treated Danielle and I as part of the family as we spent the evening there. My favorite part was doing a wine tasting where we had to guess the price of the wines. Remember, I was 23, poor, and was more of a Bud Light guy. How on earth can you possibly guess what a wine costs on a billionaire’s boat when you don’t know the difference of anything outside of Franzia!
Super Bowl Party: In February of 2005, Dan and I went to Jon’s wedding in Fort Lauderdale which was a really fun event, but the most memorable part was watching the Super Bowl at Fred’s house with his family that Sunday after. I don’t remember who played or the score, but I remember watching Fred’s face as the Subway Super Bowl Commercial aired. That was such a cool moment.
Poker: In 2009, Dan and I had started Yello (called Recsolu at the time) as we had sold eCampusRecruiter to another company the year before. We started to meet more often again and Dan and I flew down to Florida and met with Fred and Jon. After our pow-wow at Fred’s house outside by the pool, I told Fred about my time in Paris and the success I had playing poker there. He immediately wanted to play. Instead of playing with cards, which was a lot of work to shuffle and deal, he wanted to play online. Picture this, four guys sitting outside, each on our own computers playing online poker together. The best part was that it was a $2 buy-in, yet we were all so competitive!
Gibson’s: Fred had come to Chicago in 2010 for the National Restaurant Show and texted me about meeting up with him later, “Gibson’s at 7pm.” For those not familiar with Chicago, Gibson’s is one of the best steakhouses in the world. During the restaurant show, along with most other nights, it’s impossible to get in. Fred and I show up with some of his Subway colleagues at 7pm and the place is bustling. One of Fred’s Chicago guys says something to the manager and within seconds, bus boys come running out of nowhere with three tables and create a new section for us. It was straight out of Goodfellas and when we sat down, Fred switched with someone else so he could sit next to me. We spoke the entire evening about the business and our growth and the exciting times ahead.
Falafel: Later during that 2010 visit to Chicago, Fred was telling me about possibly adding falafel to the Subway menu. When I lived in Paris in 2008-2009, falafel was huge there and I became a pseudo-connoisseur (at least in my head). Fred admitted he didn’t know much about it and wanted my opinion so we went to a Subway in the Loop and I had a number of store owners there that were really pushing to get falafel added. We tasted the falafel, and then Fred said, “So Jason – you’re the expert here. What do you think?” I remember seeing the eyes of all the Subway owners with baited breath as I had their fate in my hands. I told them it was pretty good, but would have preferred a tahini sauce instead of the tzatziki cucumber sauce. The owners agreed, but there was some allergy concern around sesame seeds so they went with the other sauce. I gave it a thumbs up and they began a pilot in Chicago a few months later.
Soda Machine: I don’t know about you, but fountain soda is a thousand times better than canned or bottled soda. In our first office as a perk, I used to go to the grocery store and buy four or five 12-packs of soda each week. While I’m not sure if it was a good use of my time or energy, someone needed to do it. I really wanted a fountain soda machine to take that job away from me, and provide a really cool perk to our hardworking team. When we moved to 70 W. Madison, we weren’t allowed to have one because of some rules with the distributors. One of the only favors I asked Fred for was to see if he knew someone at Coke that could help us out. Minutes later a VP from Coke called me and we had one delivered the next day. It was (and still is) awesome!
Recruiting Solutions Conference: Fred came back to Chicago in 2012 to attend our Recruiting Solutions Conference at the Trump Hotel. He stopped by our office and was able to meet with our largest client at the time Johnson & Johnson. He told me how he was even more excited about our business now after seeing the impact we could make at a company of that size and magnitude. Fred laughed that getting new software used at Subway wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, and the fact we were able to do it at Fortune 500 companies was really impressive.
Fred loved our conference. I got a follow-up email from him the next day with 9 compliments and suggestions. He sat next to another one of my mentor’s from Johnson & Johnson, Rich Oliver, and had a huge grin, just yelling out “Think Big!” during our innovation session.
Thank You Fred
I’ve never really told the story about how I met Fred or the adventures Dan and I had with him and Jon. I’m not really sure why. I don’t know if people would think that we were riding Fred’s success or if I just wanted to keep the amazing moments to myself. With Fred’s passing last week, I really wanted to share the amazing experiences that I will remember forever.
I truly believe in fate, but you need to be ready to make the most of each opportunity that fate provides. At the funeral, Jon spoke about how Fred had the opportunity at a picnic to meet Dr. Buck and as a 17 year-old get the idea for Subway collectively off the ground. I think about the MetroJet flight often, and how similar that was. The fact that Fred’s funeral was on my birthday was not lost on me either.
The night before in the receiving line I spoke to Fred’s wife and Jon. She said, “You must have made a big impression on Fred. He was pitched things constantly, and the fact that he was interested says a lot about you.” I told her I thought he was my Dr. Buck.
Fred – thank you for giving the opportunity to Dan and me to build a business our way and for the mentorship we received early on. I know we started small, but we’re on our way to finishing big.