Clark Armstead, a St. Paul businessman best known for opening what are believed to be the first submarine sandwich shops in Minnesota, died Jan. 30 at the age of 90.
Born in 1932, Armstead spent most of his childhood in St. Paul. His father, Wyman, was an entrepreneur who owned several businesses, including a hamburger restaurant that the family lived above on University and Dale. The restaurant was named Clark’s after Clark Armstead’s uncle, a name that would be reappropriated when Armstead became an entrepreneur himself.
While attending Washington High school, Armstead met his best friend and future business partner of more than 60 years Don Evans. After graduating, their first taste of working in business came when the two became traveling advertisers, making and selling coupon books, according to Clark’s son Craig.
“They were kind of cowboys just going coast to coast and all the cities in between, and generating incredible amounts of money,” he said.
‘A coat of paint on the Titanic’
During a stop in New York, the two learned about submarine sandwiches, a phenomenon that hadn’t come to Minnesota yet. They decided to come back and implement the business model of the sandwich shops they saw, opening the first Clark’s Submarine Sandwich shop in St. Paul on University and Dale in 1959.
At first, the idea was a “serious flop,” according to Evans.
“People didn’t know what we were,” said Evans. “We lost money for three years, and people thought, ‘there’s no business in this.’”
Evans said they got so desperate that he had to move back to New York and return to advertising to raise money so Clark could keep the business going.
“I would send him money, and I’d talk to him on the phone and say, ‘Clark, it seems like we’re putting a coat of paint on the Titanic.’ And he’d say, ‘Don, they love the sandwich.’”
After learning from mistakes and improving marketing, Armstead and Evans began opening more and more restaurants, at their height owning 25 locations in four states.
While the chain was by far their biggest endeavor, the partners started numerous other businesses, including a ’50s-themed Frogtown Diner that opened on University Avenue in 1988, an idea they had picked up from a similar place in Chicago.
The business was fun to operate, and Armstead and Evans even started their own radio station from the diner. However, it ended up being expensive, costing $1.2 million to open, and difficult to run, Craig Armstead said.
“I think it was maybe a little ahead of its time, and over time the location ended up being a detriment, not a real asset,” he said.
In the early 1990s, amid a national recession, both the chain and the diner went under. In a 1992 article from the Pioneer Press, Clark attributed the failure of Clark’s in part to the rise of Subway, whose shops began springing up throughout the Twin Cities metro in the ’80s and ’90s.
“I was shamed by all this,” said Armstead at the time. “It was a personal tragedy for me to fail because you are brought up to not fail. God knows, this has been a nightmare, the most tragic thing that ever happened to me. But I also know that God does not give you more than you can handle, and the funny part of it was that while it was happening, it was almost exciting.”
A success in family
According to Craig Armstead, his dad was able to get over any failure quickly.
“My dad was a product of The Depression,” he said. “Both of these guys — they didn’t really know anything but working hard. They didn’t really have a particular skill per se … With so many things, he just got a new idea and he was on to the next thing.”
Clark Armstead and Evans owned many of the buildings where Clark’s were located, and they soon reopened two Twin Cities locations as The Original Sub Shoppe, which did well for a couple of years, Evans said.
Outside of his career, Craig said Clark was a present father who was stern but loving. He said as a family they loved going on “epic road trips” or visiting Clark’s parents’ resort. One of Clark’s favorite pastimes was fishing and hunting, which he also passed on to his kids.
“He was our hero,” said Craig. “He didn’t hug me a lot to tell me that he loved me, but me or my siblings never had any questions or doubt that he loved us all more than anything. Most of what he did was for somebody else.”
Craig loved hearing stories from his dad’s era advertising coupons, and Clark and Don remained close friends with the other advertisers throughout their lives.
The group met annually as a tradition for their “Bookman Buddies Bull**** and Booze Party,” which included gambling and electing “Bull******* of the Year,” he said.
“When I was first invited to it, I can’t tell you how proud I was,” he said. “We’d play poker all night and listen to these stories, and you couldn’t print one of them in the newspaper.”
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