Industry observers had speculated for months that Restaurant Brands International, the parent of Burger King and Popeyes, was looking to purchase a large sandwich chain. They just predicted the wrong one. RBI announced Monday that it had reached a deal to buy Firehouse Subs, not the larger but more embattled Subway chain that had been a rumored acquisition target.

While the purchase may have surprised some analysts and observers, they also thought RBI’s decision made sense for the Canada-based company. They see more upside with Firehouse Subs, which has less baggage than Subway, a brand that’s not just fighting a lawsuit over its tuna but also battling with franchisees. They think RBI can do for Firehouse what it has done for Popeyes, namely help the chain grow and further expand its reputation, perhaps with new products (who can forget what the fried chicken sandwich did for Popeyes in 2019?) and strategic partnerships (think: the coolest franchisee in history).

“They are unknown enough with consumers that RBI can really help them build out what that brand is,” said Maeve Webster, trends specialist for CCD Innovation and president of Menu Matters. “Not so much changing what the brand is, but just increasing awareness really effectively. I think they did the same thing with Popeyes. Popeyes has been around for a long time, but RBI really helped them elevate their profile among consumers.”

Firehouse Subs launched in 1994 when brothers Chris and Robin Sorensen, second-generation firefighters, opened their first shop in Jacksonville, Fla. The brothers told a reporter they had less than $100 in their checking accounts when they debuted their sandwich shop. But their frugal approach to business — initially relying on loans from family and friends, not treating the company as a personal ATM — helped them to slowly grow Firehouse, which became debt-free in 2001, according to a CNBC story.

According to a news release announcing RBI’s acquisition, the Firehouse chain has tripled its locations since 2010. It now has 1,200 restaurants in the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada, the vast majority of them operated by franchisees. Sales have quadrupled since 2010, too, according to the same release. They’re expected to hit $1.1 billion this year.

Little wonder then that José Cil, chief executive for RBI, is so bullish on Firehouse.

“We see tremendous potential to accelerate U.S. and international growth at Firehouse Subs with RBI’s development expertise, global franchisee network and digital capabilities,” Cil said in a statement announcing the $1 billion cash transaction. The deal is expected to close in the “coming months,” according to the announcement.

Jonathan Maze, editor in chief of Restaurant Business Online, said RBI can help Firehouse expand in markets outside the United States.

“The real potential is in international markets. That’s where RBI absolutely shines,” Maze said. “RBI has a very good strategy of growing very rapidly in international markets. If you look at what Tim Hortons has done, they’ve built, I think, 300 locations in China about two years into opening the market, which is very, very impressive. They’re deploying a lot of the same strategies at Popeyes.”

Maze said it was unusual for RBI to retain Don Fox, the chief executive of Firehouse, just as it was unorthodox for RBI to keep the sandwich chain based in Jacksonville. By contrast, when RBI purchased Popeyes in 2017, it moved the chicken chain’s corporate headquarters to Miami to consolidate the parent company’s U.S. operations.

But those decisions, Maze added, should help RBI maintain Firehouse’s unique culture, which, true to its firefighter theme, strives to help communities where shops are located. The Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, for example, has awarded more than $62.5 million to support first responders across the country.

Large, publicly traded companies, such as RBI, “have investors they have to worry about, public company reports that they have to file, analysts who are asking questions, and hedge funds that are demanding changes, so it can be really difficult to maintain” the culture of a new acquisition, Maze said. “That’s going to be the big challenge going forward.”

Neither Webster nor Maze predict RBI will use Firehouse to chase after Subway as the behemoth of sandwich chains struggles. Subway has more than 20,000 locations in the United States alone, though Restaurant Business Online reported that the chain has closed thousands of shops in the past few years.

“I think, for right now, they don’t need to try and compete against Subway as the ‘next Subway,’” said Webster. “They should really stand apart from Subway and really be, which I think they are, the Popeyes of the sandwich category.”

In fact, Maze said, RBI might not need to do anything major with Firehouse, other than work to expand its footprint and improve its technology. RBI could follow the approach it took with Popeyes, in which the parent company did little for two years, other than move the company headquarters.

If RBI just lets Firehouse be Firehouse and continue to do the things that they’ve done, they’ll be good,” Maze said. “The benefit here is that they don’t really have to make changes.”

At the same time, RBI might have a tough time creating a menu item for Firehouse that can replicate the hugely popular, culture-shifting success of Popeyes’ chicken sandwich.

“It’s not like you can just go in and add a chicken sandwich at Firehouse and generate a ton of buzz,” Maze said. “So that makes it a little bit more difficult.”

Read more from Voraciously: