When Don Johnston opened his Subway restaurant at the corner of Bloomfield and Pompton Avenues in Verona, he just may have picked the worst possible moment.
The great recession was in full swing and the worst winter to hit the town in a decade was on the horizon.
Still, he soldiered on. No doubt the determination, perseverance and strength he gained from his military experience served his business well.
At just 17 Johnston enlisted in the military and spent the next 10 years in a combination of the Army and the Army reserves.
Although he contemplated leaving the military for civilian life shortly before Sept. 11, the terrorist attacks on that day convinced him otherwise. He reenlisted and spent another six years working in Special Operations.
Deployed in late 2002 with the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion, he spent a month in isolation at an undisclosed location.
During that first tour, Johnston lived in a safe house in the northern part of the country as a member of a four-person team sent to work with Kurdish para-military troops. From 2002 to April 2004, his mission took him to such hotspots as Mosul and Kirkuk.
Living in the north as part of a small unit was very isolating, according to Johnston. Often months would pass before he and his team came in contact with any other Americans. The only time they saw American soldiers, he said, was when they needed to obtain supplies.
In the middle of this first tour Johnston received word of his father’s death. He flew home for the funeral and recalled being unprepared for the reception he received upon arriving back in the States.
Strangers approached him in the airport wanting to shake his hand and thank him for his service to the country. This surprised Johnston. As far as he was concerned, he was just doing his job.
Johnston served two more tours in Iraq and spent a total of 4½ years there although he explained his other two tours were served as a civilian under army jurisdiction. From 2004 to 2005 he provided security and worked with the Iraqi Provisional Authority, and from 2007 until 2009 he supported intelligence and security command, which involved coordination with every branch of the military.
“I was intimately involved with the Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard,” he said.
After nearly 16 years abroad and in war zones, Johnston was satisfied with his accomplishments and all the work he had done to help others, and he decided it was time to settle down. He moved back to New Jersey where he had spent some time as a kid, and began to reinvent himself.
Although he was starting over, Johnston credits the military as well as his experience working on Wall Street and in real estate for preparing him for this next phase in his life.
“All of that conditioned me to be where I am now,” Johnston asserted. “I’m very proud of that.”
While Johnston built on his experience, he also recognized he was “a born leader.” When he returned home he said, “It just made sense to own my own business.”
The choice of working with the Subway franchise also made sense to Johnston.
“It’s one of the only businesses that saw growth over the past five years,” Johnston said. Remarkably, the franchise has even surpassed McDonald’s in the number of stores in operation.
But Johnston selected Subway for another reason, too. The meatball subs.
“That’s the one thing I would go out of my way for,” Johnston recalled about the time he spent in Iraq. He was stunned to find the sandwich tasted “exactly the same” as the ones he had back home.
“I thought, this is crazy.”
So, once back in the States he decided to open his own franchise.
“Instead of buying a house, I bought a business,” he said. And it would seem it’s a business run as orderly and efficiently as a military operation.
“I’m a stickler for quality, appearance and personal service.” Jonhston added, “We’re fast food with a personal touch. That’s what separates us.”
But another thing separates Johnston’s business, too. Johnston is still looking to help others. Even as a business owner, he strives to help other veterans, those whose lives may not be vastly different from his own.
“People need to know there’s a success story,” he emphasized.
Johnston’s success story is one he’s eager to share with other vets. He has spent a fair amount of time in his new store welcoming and listening to fellow veterans as only another soldier can.
As a veteran, Johnston is part of a select group that can truly understand the experiences of other soldiers, and as a businessman he is in the position of offering his help and guidance on the transition from the military to civilian life.
Aside from trying to help out fellow veterans, Johnston is also interested in giving back to his new community. He has started a School Donation Program where he will give 10% of all sales from school orders for the week back to the school. “If they spend $1,000 they’ll get $100 back.”
After living all over the world, Johnston has made Verona his home base, and he’s proud to have a business that serves the community.
“To go from where I’ve come from to here is an achievement. And I’m not done yet.”