Erbert & Gerbert's thrives at Southern Oregon University

The parade of fast-food and quick-cuisine chains coursing their way west across the plains, over the mountains and up or down Interstate 5 is seemingly endless.

Sooner or later, it seems, most of the regional or national food franchises find their way to the Rogue Valley.

In the past year, we've seen Jake's Wayback Burgers, Chipotle and Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches among a plethora of new entries into the market.

During the middle of 2012, another national player, Erbert & Gerbert's sandwich shop, showed up on the Southern Oregon University campus.

Fanfare wasn't really in the cards for the Wisconsin-based sandwich-maker when it filled a space formerly occupied by Subway. In fact, it was a rocky beginning.

"For about a week we got (student) complaints," said manager Dan Machen. "And then they realized Erbert & Gerbert's sandwiches were much better, and they definitely prefer them now."

So much so, Machen said, that Erbert & Gerbert's has elbowed its way to the head of the class at Elmo's, a food court in the Stevenson Union featuring six other outlets — a coffee shop, a pizza place, along with ones focusing on Asian cuisine, hamburgers, vegan/vegetarian and Mexican food.

"Erbert & Gerbert's sells as much as the rest of the other concepts combined," he said.

The chain got its start in Eau Claire, Wis., in 1987 and has grown modestly to more than 70 shops, primarily in the upper Midwest, with outposts in Georgia, Texas and Colorado.

Erbert & Gerbert's got a foothold in Ashland when Roseville, Minn.-based A'viands landed the food services contract at SOU.

"It's a unique choice on college campuses," said Steve West, vice president of education and business at A'viands. "With their high-quality product and creative menu choices, it seems to be well-received."

A'viands also operates an Erbert & Gerbert's on the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay campus.

With selections keyed to little-known literary characters, ordering can be an adventure, said Machen, a music business major at SOU.

"Nobody knows what we do until they come into the store for the first time," Machen said. "The sandwiches all have quirky names named after kids' stories characters."

Erbert & Gerbert's has been seeking at least one more Rogue Valley store since the SOU location opened, said Jeff Thames, franchise sales director for the chain, who would like to see three outlets in the region within the next three years.

"We've had great success going on or near campuses in college towns," Thames said. "We want to branch out from success on campus to larger towns in Oregon, and the Medford area has the population to support at least one of our stores."

The start-up cost for a franchise is $260,000, he said. With a drive-thru, it's closer to $300,000.

Panda Express, meanwhile, is awaiting city Planning Department approval for the building that will house its second location, between the south Medford Walmart and Rogue Federal Credit Union.

"It was supposed to open this year," said Ray Valdivia, who manages Panda Express on Delta Waters Road. "But it's been moved to next year."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness.

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