Kathy James took a part-time job at the Payson Subway in December 1991, shortly after moving to Payson from Tucson.
“The town was small, and I wanted to get out and meet people,” she said.
It’s safe to say she accomplished that goal.
Three decades later, James is still at the Subway location in the Bashas’ shopping center, 128 E. Highway 260.
She started behind the counter making sandwiches and transitioned into a full-time role as manager within six months. Six years later, she became the franchise’s third owner.
James, 68, is retiring this week just shy of 30 years with the company.
“I never thought of owning a sub shop,” she said. “All I wanted to do was get a part-time job and just meet people. I never realized my ambition would get me where I am.”
One of her proudest moments came in August 2019, when her store won Subway’s Arizona Restaurant of the Month award for just the second time since it opened.
“It’s based on sales, cleanliness, customer comments and evaluations,” she said. “We got a trophy, a cake and the newspaper took a photo of all my employees and had a story. I believe there are about 400 stores in Arizona.”
James grew up on Long Island, N.Y. and at 27 moved in with her cousin in Tucson in 1979 until she found her own place.
“I was young, and I wanted something different from New York; a slower pace,” she said.
She worked as a bartender and in restaurants in Tucson, then got married and was a stay-at-home mom after her first daughter, Jennifer, was born. Her second daughter, Mary, was born seven years later.
James and her daughters moved to Payson. They still live here and she has two grandchildren, Micheal and Elizabeth.
James oversaw a “facelift” and three remodels, including adding restrooms in 2013 after she expanded the store to add the vacant suite on the east side of the business that formerly housed a vitamin shop.
She said great customer service was her top priority, and she dealt with one glaring issue her first 22 years there.
“We didn’t have (public) restrooms,” she said. “It was horrible. It’s hard for people to understand why you don’t have a restroom. They’d say, ‘Isn’t it illegal to operate a restaurant without restrooms?’ But Gila County wouldn’t have let us operate all those years if it wasn’t legal. We’d send them to Bashas’.”
James took a hands-on approach to running the restaurant, doing the same jobs she asked of her employees. She did them before and didn’t stop when she bought the franchise.
“I was right there with them on my hands and knees cleaning,” she said. “A lot of businesses don’t have the owner in store and I feel if you have an absentee owner the crew doesn’t care. I love my employees.”
All the employees, including manager Michelle Westby, are staying to continue providing the same level of service.
“I’m excited for her to be able to retire; she’s been here so long,” Westby said. “It’ll be exciting for her to have her own time.”
Subway has only been open for to-go orders since COVID-19 restrictions went into effect, but Westby said the dining area will reopen to indoor dining this week at 50% capacity.
The pandemic has been the most difficult thing James had to deal with in her time at Subway, but isn’t the reason she’s retiring. She said sales have remained good despite the government restrictions to limit the spread of the virus.
James said it’s the people who made her time memorable.
“I want to thank everyone who took this journey with me — my family, friends and customers,” she said. “Many of my customers became friends. I’m going to miss my customers.”
Now she’ll relax and have time to figure out what she wants to do.
“I might do some traveling in the states,” she said. “What I’m going to do is still open. I’m going to sit down and make out my bucket list. Today is the first day of the rest of my life. I have time to decide.”