WEST HAVEN, Conn. — Michael Thomas sits in the half-finished office at his Subway restaurant, with an American flag and an array of awards and certificates from his military years displayed on walls around him.
He speaks only briefly about his Navy service and is hesitant to explain his awards or acknowledge accolades he’s receiving from veterans’ organizations, because, he says, his latest venture is not about him.
It’s about the Army vet and local woman behind the Subway counter a few feet away learning about customer service and business operations. It’s about the fellow veteran sitting in a booth at the sandwich shop, waiting to meet with Thomas about job opportunities after driving from his home in Waterbury.
Thomas recently took over the Subway location at 232 Captain Thomas Blvd. with the goal of employing several veterans, some with disabilities, and giving all employees the skills needed in today’s job market — not just training in creative cold-cut combinations.
His ultimate vision entails not only maintaining the storefront as a popular eatery, but developing it into a resource center for those who are returning from war or have been back for decades — to aide them in finding jobs, fine-tuning resumes or connecting with VA Connecticut Healthcare System staff.
“For me personally, this is particularly rewarding because I’ve gone from a life that was focused on killing to a life that’s focused on nourishment and sustainment, and that, from a personal, emotional, psychological, spiritual standpoint, is incredibly fulfilling in and of itself,” Thomas said. “And I think that is something that will resonate with my brothers and sisters who are coming back.”
Thomas, 43, grew up in New Haven and attended Wesleyan University in Middletown and Yale Law School before entering the Navy in 1995 to serve as an intelligence officer. He served in Kosovo as part of Operation Allied Force in 1999 under Gen. Wesley Clark and in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2008, returning to Connecticut about four years ago.
“I realized I had changed, and the world had changed, and I was diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and started going to the VA in West Haven,” said Thomas, who now lives in Milford with his wife.
He took a job as a senior adviser for veteran, military and defense affairs with Sen. Richard Blumenthal and said the work showed him “how dire the situation for veterans was, especially with employment.”
It led him to a man who worked at Subway and was hoping the brand could launch a veteran-focused training model.
Thomas is the first Subway franchise location to initiate a veterans program, a goal made possible by a Webster Bank startup loan through the Small Business Administration’s Patriot Express program.
“I’m putting all my employees through the same thing. ... My thought was to bring people in, grow them from the inside, show them how to run a franchise from soup to nuts — from baking bread to running financials and doing the marketing,” Thomas said.
And Thomas promises interested employees help in starting their own franchises. Some may just come for part-time work to get job experience and a self-esteem boost. Working under and with fellow veterans can help with the transition back into civilian life, Thomas said.
The second part of his plan is to create a conference room and a larger meeting area behind Subway food operations so veterans have a space for networking, career advice or appointments with VA or New Haven Vet Center staff. He envisions it as a place where veterans can find information on local services in a “non-threatening, non-institutional environment.”
As Laurie Harkness said, veterans don’t always want to come to a hospital for all appointments.
“This is going to be a place where my staff will come and hang out with veterans and bond with them and help them get access to services that will help them get on with their lives,” said Harkness, director of VA Connecticut’s Errera Center, a mental health group helping vets re-enter civilian life.
The Subway location’s proximity to the VA and the Errera Center is part of the reason Thomas chose West Haven to put down his culinary roots.
Harkness and her colleagues have referred a few clients to Thomas for jobs and check on their progress. Thomas employs people who have never been in the military and four who have: two from the Vietnam era and two from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, who see an unemployment rate in the state double that of civilians.
“He said the veterans are the glue of his whole business. The veterans show the young people what it means to have a job,” Harkness said.
For Arthur Edwards, an Army veteran who served in Germany from 1980 to 1987, working as a sandwich artist at Subway is a new challenge. He heard about the opportunity from the Errera Center.
“I went to culinary school. One day I’m going to have a franchise,” he said, taking a break from a shift at the counter. “Everybody who works here gets along. It’s a team, even Michael.”
Jen Somosky isn’t a veteran, but had experience in the food industry before joining Thomas’ staff and said she thinks her boss is giving vets a “great opportunity.”
Jobs are hard to find, especially for vets, said Darryl Gibbs, a veteran who came from Waterbury to meet with Thomas about getting a job at the West Haven Subway or near his home.
Mayor John M. Picard, who attended a ribbon-cutting at the Subway store last week, said he was pleased to see Thomas is starting a veteran training program in West Haven.
With troops expected to withdraw from operations in Afghanistan in 2014, Thomas says he feels pressure to have his program completely up and running and hopefully spreading to other Subways within a few years.
“Veterans reaching out to other veterans and helping each other through is going to be essential. That’s what I’m trying to do,” he said.
He already has an open-door policy for any veterans looking for advice and has gotten involved with fundraisers for the Fisher House, a facility that will be built near the VA to accommodate families of veterans receiving long-term treatment.
“It’s been a dream to have veteran-owned Subways all over the country, and (it) is because so many veterans are coming home and having trouble in the transition from total structure to nothingness,” Harkness said.
“He is the perfect person to be our first owner. He’s a hero, and he knows what it’s like to be in combat, and he knows the difficulties that many of his fellow veterans have had and wants to help.”